Category Archives: General Books and Literature

Food for thought … can the old pulp heroes of yesterday work in a contemporary setting?

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Ron Ely was the Tarzan of my youth. I didn’t  learn about Elmo Lincoln, Johnny Weissmuller, and, best of all, Edgar Rice Burroughs, until much later.

My love for the old pulp heroes — characters like Tarzan, Doc Savage, Professor Challenger, and the Shadow — came early, and when it took hold, it never let go. First loves are like that.

It started, like so many of my early loves, on Saturday morning.

I was watching TV with my dad — the Tarzan adventures with Ron Ely. Back in those days, there used to be shows, like, say, The Six Million Dollar Man, that Dad and I could could watch together, and both enjoy.

Dad explained that Ron Ely wasn’t the real Tarzan; that was Johnny Weissmuller. (And Clayton Moore was the real Lone Ranger.) I didn’t know if Dad was right or wrong, but I didn’t care. Ron Ely’s Tarzan delighted me.

After that, Dad led me to The Phantom in the newspaper comics, and told me about The Shadow and Doc Savage, characters I would discover for myself in later years. When I was a bit older, he introduced me to James Bond.

These characters were the first superheroes … they came before Superman and Batman and their legions of followers. They fought without costumes or superpowers (well, arguably a few like the Shadow and Mandrake the Magician might have had what you could call powers, but even they weren’t exactly leaping tall buildings with a single bound)  … just extraordinary skill. They were the peak, the very best ordinary men and women could become.

As you’ve probably heard, Superman owes much of his mythos to Doc Savage — the Man of Bronze and the Man of Steel, Clark Savage and Clark Kent, the Fortress of Solitude and the, uh, Fortress of Solitude … you get the idea.

The superpowered crowd, with their bright capes and primary-colored, skin-tight costumes, might have driven their predecessors, with their fedoras, loincloths, and ripped shirts into relative obscurity, but they’ve never quite gone away. Superman, after all, had been flying for years when I watched Ron Ely’s Tarzan with Dad. There’s a new Tarzan film out now. I haven’t seen it yet, but despite some decidedly mixed reviews, I intend to. Like I said, those early loves go deep.

Shane Black, one of the most interesting filmmakers working, is bringing Doc Savage back to the screens, and Sam Raimi was working on a new version of The Shadow, although (alas!) that seems to have vanished into development hell. Sherlock Holmes is everywhere these days — and yes, I consider Sherlock Holmes a pulp character. To me, the golden age of the pulps begins with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and his Holmes and Challenger characters, and ends with Ian Fleming and his famous creation, James Bond.

Most pulp adaptations, successful or otherwise, share one thing in common — they are period pieces. This year’s The Legend of Tarzan film, for example, is set after the Berlin Conference of 1884 and 1885. The 1994 film version of The Shadow was set shortly after the first World War.

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Attempts to modernize the pulps usually come across as, well, ludicrous. Tarzan in Manhattan, I’m looking at you.

Frankly, I think that’s a key part of the charm of the old pulp hero stories. They are relics of a time past. Something about that very inaccessibility makes suspension of disbelief easier somehow. You can kind of believe, almost, that Tarzan was raised my jungle apes, or that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger could find dinosaurs in a mysterious lost world in South America … when those stories are set in decades long past.

In the days of Google Earth, we know, all too well, that there are no more hidden plateaus or lost cities of gold in the deepest jungles. We live in a world where mysteries are vanishing.

Indeed, attempts to modernize the pulps never really seem to work. Moving Tarzan from the jungles of the late 1800s to, say, modern Manhattan, usually comes across as downright silly.

Sure, there are exceptions. There are two modern takes on Sherlock Holmes that are working beautifully … although I have a hard time imagining that Professor Challenger would have the same luck.

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Tim Byrd has written a very modern take on the pulps.

My pal Tim Byrd has written a series of wonderful middle grade/young adult novels called Doc Wilde, a not-even-thinly-disguised homage to Doc Savage. Tim’s stories are set in modern times, but his Doc Wilde isn’t the Doc Savage we know and love … it’s his son, and the main characters include the first Doc’s grandchildren. So while Tim’s stories are decidedly modern, they have deep roots in the past.

 

But these seem to be the rare exceptions that prove the rule. By and large, pulp adventures seem to work best as period pieces.

Even the venerable James Bond series, at least until the “reboot” that came with Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale, seemed a little … out of place when divorced from the cold war era. In fact, I remember reading that the producers actually considered, at least briefly, making Craig’s adventures period pieces and returning them to their cold war roots.

So my question is this … can a modern pulp series work in a contemporary setting? Could Indiana Jones have gone after the Ark of the Covenant in the 1980s, or was the World War II setting necessary?

Are the pulps doomed to be just quaint relics of a vanished age?

I ran into this problem a few years ago, when my pal Bob Robinson and I were thinking about developing a pulp pastiche for television. I wanted to make a period piece, but Bob wisely pointed out that budget and audience demand made that idea impractical at best. So my task was to come up with a modern take on the pulps, without losing the charm and adventure. After all, we still have a need for wonder … we need modern myths for the information age.

Bob and I never worked together on that project, but I never let it go.

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Early concept art for Challengers by my pal, John Bridges

The idea became Challengers, a TV pilot and bible I wrote. It’s spent years in Hollywood development hell (that’s frustrating, but despite what you hear, the process made the story at least a thousand times better). The TV version is still kicking.

 

Just this year, though, I turned the first episodes into a series of novels. My literary manager, super agent Peter Miller, has meetings in New York literally even as I type this to shop the first book, The Secret of the Serpent’s Eye.

So how did I solve the period problem? Glad you asked. Challengers tells the story of the great grandchildren of the pulp heroes. Their great grandparents could have those amazing adventures because … the world really was different then.

Something has changed.

The nature of that change is the secret history of the world.

The lead character is a 25-year old billionaire and adventurer named Tom Reilly. Twenty years ago, Tom’s parents learned a secret no one alive should ever know. They were found murdered. Only one thing was missing — a leather bound journal belonging to Tom’s great-grandfather, the founder of the Challengers, Professor Phineas J. Reilly himself.

In this first adventure, Tom recovers the journal. Desperate to learn the secret it contains, Tom gathers his diverse team, a magician, a shaman, a daredevil pilot, an inventor, a spy, and an assassin (also the great-grandchildren of pulp-era adventurers), and begins a journey that will take them to a lost temple, where they find a key that seems to alter the nature of reality itself.

One of the producers who worked with me on the television version of this story, called Challengers Edgar Rice Burroughs meets Joss Whedon as introduced by Grant Morrison, which thrilled me to no end.

As I say on my Web site, in the era of Google-earth, when we know all too well that there are no more undiscovered dinosaur plateaus in South America and no last enchanted forests waiting, still, to be found, we live in a world bereft of wonder. And perhaps more than ever, we’re hungry for the sacred stories that, like Ariadne’s thread, show us the way out of life’s dark labyrinths.

So like Tim Byrd, my stories have deep roots in a mythic past to create new archetypes in a world starved for wonders.

So what do y’all think? Can the pulps, or pulp-inspired characters, work in a modern setting? Would you want to see an Indiana Jones or Doc Savage remake set in 2016?

 

 

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In which I am interviewed on writing and marketing, I write about Renaissance fairs and setting as a “character” in a story, and prepare to write about the old pulp heroes of yesteryear

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Setting can be more than just a stage where stuff happens. Place can shape and change us just as much as other people can. It can be, almost, a character in a story.

This isn’t really a blog article as much as it is a brief update.

First, there’s a new article up on my other blog, the one about Renaissance Fairs and my book Blackthorne Faire. In that article, I talk about Ray Bradbury, Pat Conroy, Renaissance Fairs, and setting as a character in a story. Please take a look and let me know what you think.

In other news, I was recently interviewed! If you have a minute, please check out my answers to 5 Questions with Fantasy Author John Adcox.

I’ll have a new blog up next week about the old pulp heroes … characters like Doc Savage, Tarzan, and The Shadow who were popular until Superman and his costumed followers replaced them in the public zeitgeist. I’m wondering … do those stories ever work as anything other than period pieces?

It’s an important question to me, because I’m working on a series of novels, Challengers, that are heavily influenced by the pulps, but are decidedly contemporary. My literary manager, Peter Miller, is shopping them as we speak.

I’d love to know what y’all think.

Stay tuned, folks. There’s more to come.

Musing on Some Elements that Work in Fantasy, Part Two: Iconic Imagery

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One of the most iconic images in all of fantasy literature: The One Ring from The Lord of the Rings.

If you read Part One of this series, you already know that some partners and I are starting a new publishing company, ePic Adventures, Inc. As I mentioned, we’ll be doing print books, both hardcover and paperback, but our emphasis is on eBooks designed to stretch the capabilities of smartphone and tablets and redefine what an eBook can be in the age of transmedia. Again, think of them as eBooks 2.0, or the Magician’s Book from Narnia, or the tablet/smartphone equivalent of a volume from the library at Hogwarts.

As we build the ePic Books brand, we’re focusing on a single genre (or range of subgenres, I guess), at least for the first year or two: fantasy. A part of our strategy involves looking for certain elements that the very best and most successful fantasies share in common. When I say “most successful,” I’m talking about the classics of the genre, the most beloved and enduring works that stand out, across years and even generations. These are the works that shine above the rest, when as works of equal, or arguably even greater, quality dim into obscurity.

One of those elements that most enduring and successful works seem to share, Iconic Imagery, is very closely related to the Iconic Locations detailed in Part One. If you haven’t read it, skip back. It’s okay. we’ll wait.

Back? Okay then.

Absolutely iconic.

Star Trek is a terrific source of iconic images: the famous badge, the bridge of the Enterprise (always recognizable, generation after generation), tribbles, and, of course, Spock’s ears and Vulcan salute. Bladerunner? Don’t even get me started.

Speaking of the bridge of the Enterprise, how is an iconic image different from an iconic location? I admit the line is thin. In fact, at least three of the examples I mentioned in Part One, the Lamppost in Narnia, the Starship Enterprise, and the Death Star from Star Wars, might better be called iconic images rather than locations. The lamppost especially … our first view of it includes two characters, Lucy and Mr. Tumnus with his umbrella and bundles; the characters are as much a part of that scene as the lamppost and the snow-covered trees. So whether you consider it a location or an image, the point remains; it’s iconic and unforgettable. You want images like that in your story … assuming that you are striving for one of those enduring, unforgettable classics. And if you aren’t, seriously, why the hell not?

I should also point out that iconic images, at least as I’m thinking of them, aren’t always exclusively visual (which makes me think I have likely picked the wrong word, but there you are). Consider the Lightsabers in Star Wars. Those glowing laser swords are unforgettable—and are even, I think, a part of why the first film was so astonishing successful. But as iconic as that image is, most of us, I am willing to wager, can recognize a lightsaber even without the visual. The sound, that unmistakable hum, is as much as part of the integral lightsaber-ness as the visual design. If someone plays you a clip of a light saber activating or deactivating, you’ll know it at once. Go head, give it a try.

Star Wars is another gold mine for iconic images: The Millennium Falcon, the X-wing, Yoda, Wookies, the creatures in the cantina, Princess Leia’s hair buns, R2 and 3PO…. In fact, that’s one of the differences between the original trilogy and the prequels. The original trilogy is chock full of iconic images. The prequels have far more incredible and imaginative designs. But how many stand out? How many are memorable? Of those, how many didn’t appear in the original trilogy first? Off hand, Darth Maul’s character design is about all I can come up with. Could you sketch him? Or even describe him in a sentence?

Tolkien’s ring is one of the most iconic images in all of fantasy. So are his hobbits, with their pipes, their small stature, and, of course, the furry feet. What would the Harry Potter books be without, say, the wands or the moving paintings? I can honestly say that I remember more about the visuals of The Wind in the Willows, from the characters to the locations, than I can about the story itself (which means it’s probably time to revisit it).

Captain Hook’s hook is an iconic image that helps define him as a character. without it, he’s a generic pirate.

Personally, I think the best and strongest iconic images are related closely to a character if only because they have the effect of making that character iconic almost by consequence, although of course the image alone won’t do that. But at a glance, they give the character a very specific look, and they tell us a little something about the character. More, the character just won’t be the same without it, like the Dread Pirate Roberts without his black shirt and mask.

Some examples? Remember how Darth Vader’s iconic black helmet and cape stands out from that sea of white-armored Stormtroopers the first time we see him in Star Wars. Think of Indiana Jones with his jacket, whip, and hat. He’s still Indy without them, of course. He’s wearing a white dinner jacket in the opening scenes of The Temple of Doom. But when I saw the film on opening night, the first real spontaneous round of applause from the audience came when Indy pulled on his familiar “uniform” on that little plane.

If you see a poster—or read a description—of a muscled man wearing a loincloth in the jungle, chances are you’ll assume it’s Tarzan. If you see a stern male figure smoking a large pipe and wearing a deerstalker, you’re probably not thinking Nero Wolfe or James Bond. When you see a man on a white horse wearing a white hat and a mask, you won’t have to ask, at least not with a straight face, who was that masked man? It’s the Lone Ranger.

Bob Kane’s original concept for The Batman, before Bill Finger suggested the dark knight we know today.

The colorful uniform made Superman stand out from his pulp-era forefathers like Doc Savage and The Shadow, themselves iconic. When Bob Kane created Batman, he originally envisioned a bright red body suit, bat wings, and a domino mask. Bill Finger contributed a different look … the brooding cape and cowl. Would Batman have worked either way? Maybe. But I doubt it.

Granted, iconic imagery is a pretty shallow way to define a character, and it takes far more than a distinctive look to make a character truly classic. The icons help us recognize a character at a glance (Harry Potter’s glasses and scar); they don’t make us care. It’s at best just one layer, the surface one, but it’s a good place to start.

Iconic images present a challenge to the writer. It easy to show an iconic image in, say, a film or a comic. On the page? Not so much. I include the screenplay page here, too. Strong visuals help a film sell. Regardless of the medium, iconic images have to be described in sufficient detail that we can see it, sure, but the best resonate through the other senses as well. When you’re reading or writing, think of sound (remember the lightsabers), smell, and weight. The icons have to be real. In this case, the written word has an advantage. You can’t smell a film, but a writer can make a scent real. For better or for worse. A film can show us a magic sword, but the written word can show us what it feels like to hold that power pulsing through the palms of your hands.

They present challenges, but they have advantages. They make your character (or prop, or location, or vehicle, or…) a part of the collective zeitgeist. Just about any man, woman, or child can recognize Superman or Mickey Mouse at a glance. Most of them can recognize Harry Potter, Spider-man, or a lightsaber. If you want to have your work adapted for the screen, or illustrated, iconic images give the interpreters a strong foundation from which to start.

And finally (this may sound a little crass), iconic images are merchandisable. You can make toys, t-shirts, costumes, posters, mugs, trashcans, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Just look at what Patrick Rothfuss has been able to do. That’s a way to keep people talking about, and promoting, your work. And it’s a pretty good way to make it attractive to studios and publishers. And it’s certainly something that’s on our checklist at ePic.

Any thoughts, writers and readers of the world?

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Great first sentences in literature

As both a reader and a writer, I’ve come to appreciate the power of a truly excellent first sentence. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the most memorable and best-loved books ever written have truly amazing first sentences. In many cases, you can name the book just from the power of those all-important opening words. Think of Melville’s “Call Me Ishmael,” or Dickens’s “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Classic. Unforgettable.

Here are fifteen of my very favorites. Trust me, every single one of these books lives up to the promise of that first sentence.

14.) “Marley was dead, to begin with.” A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

13.) “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” Underworld: A Novel by Don DeLillo.

12.) “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

The parody in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! is almost as good. Seriously.

11.) Tie: “First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.”
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.

And:

“It was a pleasure to burn.” Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

Ray Bradbury is an absolute master of sentences, period. No surprise that a couple of his first ones should make the list.

10.) “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien.

That’s simple but amazing. I can still remember vividly being eight years old, and being utterly fascinated to find out what a hobbit might be, and why one lived in a hole. The next paragraphs paint a portrait of a warm, comfortable place in the most vividly imagined other world in all of literature. Yeah, I’m going out on that limb.

9.) “A screaming comes across the sky.” Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

An amazing start to an amazing book. This is the heir to Joyce, Faulkner, and Proust, but it’s a surprisingly accessible book, and well worth the effort. This one is important.

8.) “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984 by George Orwell.

This is a book that seems to be more relevant as the year in its title gets smaller in the rearview mirror. It’s a terrific beginning that puts the reader instantly into the hyperreality of the story.

7.) “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

Say what you want about the ending, but all of American literature begins here. Shakespeare may have invented character (as opposed to stereotype or archetype) but Twain invented the individual voice. I never claimed that this blog was a hyperbole-free zone, but I stand by that one.

6.) “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

How can you not love that? How? Can you think of a more heartbreaking, and utterly fascinating, opening? It’s a truth that echos in a hollow place deep in the gut, and it makes anxious, in more than one sense of the word, to read more.

5.) “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” The Trial by Franz Kafka.

So, what’s the book about? Just read the first sentence. And stop there. I dare you.

4.) “It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to be while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.” Shantaram: A Novel by Gregory David Roberts.

As gripping as that sentence is, the rest of the first paragraph just gets better:

“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when its all you have got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.”

The book is just delicious. Just delicious. Gregory David Roberts writes with the grace and fire of Pat Conroy.

3.) “I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.” The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

As a book lover who adores finding those lost, dusty treasures that time has overlooked, that sentence alone was enough to make Carlos Ruiz Zafón one of my very favorite writers. This book and it’s follow up, <a href="The Angel’s Game“>The Angel’s Game, are not to be missed. Trust me.

2.) “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad, and that was his entire inheritance.” Scaramouche The King Maker by Raphael Sabatini.

What’s not to love? Swordplay, revolution, philosophy, romance, and an absolutely terrific first sentence. This one has it all. Sabatini, who also wrote The Sea-Hawk and Captain Blood, belongs on the shelf with the great Alexandre Dumas himself.

and… drum roll, please!

1.) “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.

I think that sentence alone captures all the sadness and wistful, heartbreaking, magical joy that makes Gabriel García Márquez so utterly amazing.

And because you just can’t, can’t, talk about first sentences without mentioning this one:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer Lytton.

So what are your favorites? Writers, how important is a first sentence to you?

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