Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Baby shower time

My cat Paprika congratulated me last night on our complete revised draft of +JIHADI (novel by Brandon Toropov) , the best cut yet.

119,447 words. Six-plus years in utero. I'm taking a break from Big Fiction for a week or so.

Click on the picture of Paprika for a look at an excerpt from JIHADI.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Can't Possibly Be Beat

Let me humbly submit that the closest a white man can come to knowing what it's like to be black in this society is to accept Islam and practice it observantly. No. Not the same, not the same, I know, but even so, even so: I'm young, I'm fast, I'm pretty, I got an orange tabby cat in my left hand and a thunderbolt in my right, my iPad is working and I have a hundred chapters of starlight and revolution, ready for inspection. One of them is right here. I wrestled an alligator, too. And I single-handedly put a stop to drone strikes that kill civilians.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


Watched this mesmerizing broadcast last night, and I cannot describe how powerful it was for me. I'm not going to try to summarize it here, but I will say that there are practical implications to J. D. Salinger's astonishing life story that no writer of serious fiction will want to overlook.

I suppose the headline that everyone, including me, has been waiting for is that the Salinger trust is preparing to release a great deal of substantial, important fiction he finished before his death in 2010, but chose not to release. (The last piece Salinger published was in 1965.) This is a little like saying Moby Dick has been sighted in a large local swimming pool.

There is much more to this documentary than that, however. I do hope it wins an Emmy.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

THE BIG SLEEP and the power of dialogue

So the cat and I are geeking out over the double-sided BIG SLEEP reward DVD. I ordered it as positive reinforcement for completing a tough round of edits on +JIHADI (novel by Brandon Toropov) . Yes, I'm still tweaking the book before sending it out to agents, but that's not why we're here.

On one side of this magnificent disc: the previously unreleased 1945 version of THE BIG SLEEP, complete with a marginally comprehensible murder-mystery plot, and a certain quantity of insolent, double-entendre-laden, sexy dialogue that I will here designate as X.

On the other side: the tighter but weirder 1946 version. Key expository scene deleted. Plot totally impossible to follow, but there's about (X+20% of X) more brilliant, insolent, double-entendre-driven dialogue. 1946 is at least five times better than 1945. Why?

I say it's the dialogue. Warner Brothers hauled out the screenwriters (amazing how little credit they get for the transformation in the DVD's documentary) and told them to build some more edgy, who's-in-charge-of-this-flirtation scenes for Bogey and Bacall. They did, and the added scenes are stellar. By adding them, Warner changed THE BIG SLEEP from a vaguely dissatisfying whodunit into a movie about a dame. Here's the cool part. It didn't matter that the plot became utterly impossible to follow in the second cut of the film. The second cut is the masterpiece, because now we know what Bogey's really after: that tough, troubled, provocative dame.

Lauren Bacall: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first. See if they're front-runners or come from behind... I'd say you don't like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free....

Humphrey Bogart: You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how far you can go.

Lauren Bacall: A lot depends on who's in the saddle.

I don't know what the censors made of that in 1946, but I say it's proof of the power of the writer. If you establish and sustain a good love interest and get the lines right, you can overcome impossible obstacles -- like intricate, unfixed plot traps. (Sure, it also helps to have Howard Hawks directing two screen legends at the top of their game, but you get my point.)
The final version's screenplay is credited to William Faulkner (!), Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman. I don't know who wrote the scene below, but it's magnificent.


Side note: Another interesting thing about the 1946 cut is that it is, unlike the 1945 version, a postwar American film noir, perhaps the very first in that genre. It's darker, more ambiguous, less troubled about good guys and leading ladies who are incompletely good than films made in the decade leading up to 1945. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Another beta reader gives feedback on my #novel #Jihadi

Beta reader +Bill Morrison's messages below could not have come at a better time for me. I have finished my big fix-it pass on the 119,000 word manuscript, and am getting it ready to send out to agents. It's feeling like things are lining up within the novel.

I asked Bill for feedback, and for any help he could offer in identifying cuts. Here's what he wrote back:

I must be failing as any kind of editor as I cannot see any of the text I would cut.

I am finding the story very emotionally engaging. Not surprisingly I find Faitima’s story to be the one which draws me in most, her character and family situation is very credible. I loved the part about her cutting back the weeds around the new house for some reason, her unfriendly new  neighbour and her mother’s lack of communication were all very strong for me. I can imagine her mother as being uncertain in the modern world and why her daughter is now the head of the family.

As a side character, her boss who asked her to take off her head scarf was very vivid. 
The heavy set woman rousing the rabble with the megaphone was quite chilling. As it happens, my uncle saw exactly this happening in Egypt during the British occupation just before Nasser took over.
Being very familiar with America and having met a lot of US servicemen, I can recognise the American characters as being very real. Unfortunately I think I may have met the prick who organised the dog fighting and know the type.
Funny, I took the repetitions you mention as being references to oral history telling and part of the rhythm, a way to remove the story from immediate narrative.

The change in point of view without warning feels like a good device to me as it makes the whole thing into one tale which is bigger than the character’s own plot lines.

Your comments about the first twenty pages are right, it takes a bit of time to get the beat of the book, but I feel the same about Melville. The first chapter of Moby Dick wears me out.

Well it is Saturday evening here and I have just finished your book. I suppose the end of a book is not the last full stop, but the last step in the narrative and for me the last words that closed out the tale were when Fatima says that she is her "own Republic now". 
What a great phrase, you leave it very open to what that means for her, but when I read it in the context of the environment she was having to live in, it was a little bit like the despair of losing the relationship she had with her own community and, at the same time taking the right to state her right to be independent. Like a sorrowful declaration that there is nothing for her in the Republic of her own people and all the responsibility that a Republic has, is now on her shoulders. The fact that she said it through a video link also makes me think of those final messages suicide bombers make.

She's a great character, all the better because she has such a light description. Cannot wait to see the book in print.

For me, Fatima is a very good response to Hobbes ( life is nasty brutish and short / it is all against all etc).  She accepts her duty and surrenders her life. Thelonius has been trained to accept danger and death, she responds to an ethical trauma.
Great theme and really lives up to what I understand is the true meaning of the title.

(Click on the picture of my cat Paprika to read an excerpt from JIHADI.)


Sunday, January 5, 2014

Using Plot Whisperer and GMC to Unlock Plot Points in #TheWizardofOz

(A friend asked about how to fix the end of her novel. Here was my response.)

Personally, I hate it when people answer a fair question by saying "go read this book," so what I'm going to do is give you the essence of two books that were really important for me and then urge you to go read them. If that's your thing.

Here's the first bit, which is about structure, and which all depends on your protagonist having a clear goal. My example is THE WIZARD OF OZ, not because it's a novel, but because it's a perfectly structured plot that just about everyone is familiar with.

At 25% of your final word length there's a thing called THE END OF THE BEGINNING. This is usually a very clear line: Your protagonist moves from a familiar world to an unfamiliar world, and a new and difficult situation. You can also call this the end of Act I. Often (not always) the goal becomes clear here. [Restless Dorothy, unhappy with Miss Gulch's persecution of Toto, is caught up in a twister and enters the magical land of OZ. Because she knows her aunt is sick, though, she wants to go home.]

At 50% of your final word length there's a thing called the HALFWAY POINT. Your protagonist has the chance to back down from the goal, but doesn't. Instead, he/she recommits. This is the point of no return. [Dorothy reaches the Emerald City, but finds that she has to go on a quest to get the broom of the Wicked Witch if she wants to get back to Kansas. She agrees and begins the quest.]

At 65-75% of your final word length, there's a CRISIS. The protagonist has the choice to either resist the difficult situation and become a victim, or yield to what is, be transformed and become a victor. After that decision (in a murky bit of terrain where the energy drops off a bit), there's a transition out of Act II and into act III. This dividing line is harder for me to spot than the dividing line between Act I and Act II, but it always follows the crisis. I think it may be less of a line than a slow fade, personally. [Under attack, Dorothy takes action and throws water at the flaming Scarecrow ... but also douses the Wicked Witch, melting her. She then heads back to OZ with the broom in hand.]

At 90-95% of your final word length, there's a CLIMAX (also called a THIRD-ACT TWIST) where the story reaches its highest point of energy and the protagonist uses a special skill or ability to overcome his/her obstacle. [Dorothy is left behind when the balloon flies off without her. She reaches her lowest point, and returning to Kansas seems impossible. Then Glinda appears and it turns out Dorothy's real obstacle was internal: She could have gone home all along, but she didn't yet realize "there's no place like home."]

At something close to 100% of your final word length, there's a RESOLUTION and evidence of the emotional growth of the protagonist. [Dorothy achieves her objective and makes it home. There really is no place like home!]

I offer all this detail because it's obvious, in looking at a well-crafted plot like this, that you have to know what Dorothy's objective is going to be in order to write the CLIMAX and RESOLUTION, which is what you asked about.

These plot point names (except for the THIRD-ACT TWIST) are from Martha Alderson's indispensable book THE PLOT WHISPERER. I analyzed the Wizard of Oz story using her template. (If she did it somewhere else, I couldn't find it online.) You should read Alderson. But if you choose not to, you can use what I sketched out here.
Here's the second bit, which is about character.
But of course character affects structure, and structure affects character, and so on and so on and shooby-dooby-dooby. ANYWAY, this second bit is from Debra Dixon's equally indispensable GMC: Goal, Motivation, Conflict. (+Mary Cain made me read this book at gunpoint, bless her.) These three elements, Dixon points out, are the building blocks of good fiction, and if you aren't clear on the GMC, something is going to go wrong somewhere and your story isn't going to work.

This part requires you to answer certain questions about your character. Ask yourself the questions and then come up with your best answer, in writing. Then check what you've written with someone who supports you and is familiar with your work and will challenge you. That's the only way to get it right. It takes some work.
Here is what it would look like if it were perfect:
External: Get to Emerald City/See the Wizard/Get the broomstick
Internal: To find her heart's desire and a place with no trouble
External: Auntie Em is sick!
External: The Wizard is at Emerald City/He has the power to send her home/Getting the broomstick is the price for sending her home
Internal: She's unhappy/Trouble follows her everywhere
External: The Witch/The balloon lifts off without her
Internal: She doesn't know what she wants
Think of a successful piece of commercial fiction that you like. Look at it very closely. My guess is that you will find that the author has answered all of these questions ahead of time, not just for the protagonist, but for the antagonist and the major supporting characters, too. This may take quite a bit of casting about, but it is essential, and it can be done.
You should read Dixon's book, too. That's her analysis of Dorothy's GMC, by the way, not mine.
I have to admit here that it took me a long time to reach the point where I could fill in all of Dixon's boxes. I couldn't have done it a year ago. I was able to do it last month. In between was a lot of flailing about, but the time I spent writing and rewriting imperfect drafts did produce enough clarity about my character for me to complete this exercise.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A discussion on democracy and Khilafah

(On G+, a brother posted a graphic critical of "democracy," and I wrote:)

I'd be interested to hear how people feel about a democratic system based on the principle of shura (consultation). Also interested in opinions about what process resulted in the selection of Abu Bakr (ra) as Khalifa. You don't have to call that process democratic if you don't want to, but I am curious as to what you would call it.

(Someone suggested that Abu Bakr [ra] had been appointed by the Prophet [pbuh]. In response, I wrote:)

I'd be interested to see the citation on his appointment. I believe this is disputed. The present system by which individuals seek office for their own aggrandizement is manifestly un-Islamic, I agree.


(The brother who had posted the original graphic wrote: " I believe this is disputed. " i think you taking selection process as disputed ? we will definitely share citations with you, but what will be the aftermaths ? 1) your just belief will change  towards Abu Bakr R.A's khilafah ? 2) if the both systems are same then Khilafah's english translation is Democracy ? i will try my best to share historical moments as soon as possible which were accepted by masses at that time collectively and till today approximately all Muslims also accepting those incidents positively. )

Thanks for the reply. I think both the outcome and the process are disputed as history. My belief is that shura took place, and a man who did not put his own candidacy forward -- Abr Bakr RA -- was selected as the legitimate, authentic Khalifa. This should be our model. Our Shia brothers and sisters disagree on some of these points, but this gives us all needed practice on implementing the etiquettes of disagreement!

Our Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, instituted the system of shura for the Muslims in obedience to Allah (swt). To the degree that we deviate from it, we do ourselves and the Ummah a disservice. In my humble opinion, Khilafah is as fard as salat, and non-Muslims who object to it need to dismantle the institution of the papacy before they take the step of oppressing those who advocate for Khilafah peacefully. That said, I think we need to choose our words about political matters carefully, because we live in a time when Shaytan is very busy twisting them. The principle of shura has significant overlaps with some of the principles of constitutional democracy, and demonizing the latter seems pointless to me. If that's how non-Muslims wish to conduct their affairs, so be it. When Muslims come to the point of governing themselves, I believe they have a religious obligation to select Islamic principles over non-Islamic ones. I also believe we should make it as easy as possible for them to do so, and that means moderating polarizing rhetoric that seems designed to turn people who choose to vote into "enemies of Islam."