Dog Ear
Villains (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 31 May 2018 07:30

t work I sit next to a hypothetical guy – he loves asking off the wall, unexpected questions. And that’s fine – I enjoy finding myself thinking up answers (one was, “Which Greek hero represents you?” My answer, Achilles. You gotta love how he went on strike because of bad management practices). But this time he asked me, “What are your three favorite villains?”

That’s a very interesting question, and I was amazed at how quickly it stumped me. Sure, I read a lot of novels, scifis and fantasies. But really, are there truly villains you’ve read that aren’t just cardboard cutouts, that give you a chill or a thrill? Even extending it to films and all media, it’s a very curious question.

My first thought was Rudi von Starnberg, the organizer of the prince-switching plot in Royal Flash. He was just the sort of guy I liked (and wished I could be) – ornate and cool and funny. He really captured it for me. But the more I thought about it, I liked him for being him, not for being a villain. So I had to withdraw him.

Immediately after that, I decided that General Woundwort from Watership Down was a great villain. He’s all powerful, he’s frightening, he’s missing an eye (and yes, he’s a bunny, a bad, bad bunny). He doesn’t make overly stupid mistakes, he has great lines and his character flaws aren’t artificial. As it was later said, General Woundwort's body was never found. It could be that he still lives his fierce life somewhere else, but from that day on, mother rabbits would tell their kittens that if they did not do as they were told, the General would get them. Such was Woundwort's monument, and perhaps it would not have displeased him.

Yeah, so he’s in.

After about thirty minutes and a scrum call later, I came up with the second: Sauron from the Rings trilogy. Like Woundwort, he’s got an unbeatable army at his back. But he’s so perverse and far-gone that you don’t even know if he’s even recognizable as a human anymore. All he does is lurk in his tower and sweep for the hobbits. His efforts are sound, he doesn’t do stupid-leader-stuff, and his end feels earned. So, yeah, I’d put him in.

The next-pod-guy and I kicked ideas back and forth and finally he mentioned Darth Vader. Yes, I’d go with that (even though I no longer follow the movies and find it too much of a grinder for my tastes). But the classic Vader, the bad guy you eventually feel sympathy for, he’s a great Villain. Choking the shit out of admirals, classic.

Only after I came up with mine did we look online to see what others mentioned in various articles. Sure, there were famous books, many of which I’d not read and some villains that baffled me (Captain Hook? What are you, four years old?). But the surprising final one I wished I’d thought about was Milo Minderbinder from Catch-22, who turns all of World War Two into a gigantic corporate venture. Yeah, he was a good villain, an unseen villain, who only comes out of the woodwork near the end when he has his own army, a monopoly on brothels, and his own air force. Perfect.

Oh, and one I came up with much later that nobody picked, Moby Dick. Yeah, there’s a villain for you. Or would it be Ahab. Both?

Think about it. What villains define your fiction?


Good words, bad sentence (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 23 May 2018 22:42

emember last week? I was sitting on the train, worried about the rain coming down and what I’d do when I ran out of train to hide in. And I thought (as I studied the puddles for raindrops, the cyclist’s gauge) about how this could be a good piece. Nobody sharing my rail car with me would know the tense drama unfolding. But once it becomes known (this fixation for drops as we worked progressively south), it adds something to the scene. Suddenly I’m not a guy on the train. I’m a guy on the train with a backstory.

Okay, so I thought it was pretty clever, pulling a writing lesson out watching raindrops licking at puddles. And then I wrote this…

I’m on the train, my nonplussed reflection reflects back at me against a leaden sky.


How did I miss using the same word twice? I was looking at my reflection doing what reflections do, i.e.reflect. So there I was, punching up the text so it would read really sharp and interesting. I probably liked that word so much that I focused my mind on it and described what I was looking at, not looking at the words together but as clever indivuduals.

I play the game Go, where you need to focus tactically but also look at the long game. And if there is a Go moment I’ll remember, it’s when I thought I was stalking my buddy Omar into a fix. I was so focused on my schemes that I didn’t give the board much more than a glance. Placed my evil move and went to lunch. Came back to find his move and four dead stones on the side of the board, my stones! While I’d stalked him, he’d stalked me and had reasoned that I’d get nailed before he would. So I blundered right into it, counting my unhatched chickens and all that.

So last week’s piece was a little like that. I was so focused on making each word right that I didn’t make each sentence right. So always keep that in mind.

And now I’ll let this sit for a few days and then look again – carefully – to make sure a piece about bad wording doesn’t contain… bad wording.


Attention to Detail (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 16 May 2018 20:52

’m on the train, my nonplussed reflection reflects back at me against a leaden sky. I’ve got my leg (the cuff still soaked from recent bus-train dash) tossed over my folded Brompton bike. As the backwall landscape rolls by, I’m paying special attention to the weedy gravel-bordered rain puddles.


Successful writing means you (the author) pays attention to the little details of life. You can describe a guy going out to his car for his morning commute, but if he picks his keys out of a tray (showing he’s got a living routine he follows) you flesh him out a little more. Sherlock Holmes’s whole gimmick was this, noticing the obvious details that make up lives. In Star Trek, the characters were fleshed out by nationality and accents, giving them a much more vibrant feel than a bunch of faceless white bread NASA-heroes. Details round out our characters. They make them stand out, and they give them depth.

Just giving them a repeating idiosyncrasy will do it, a turn of phrase, a cadence of speaking, a nervous twitch. These are the things readers enjoy discovering, the story within the story, the details that make life what it is.

And why was that author riding on a train through gloomy skies with his bike and wet pants, looking so intently at rain puddles?

I’m seeing if the rain is letting up for when I get out two stops down the line. I still have a ride ahead of me and looking at the puddles is the easiest way of telling if it’s still raining or not.


p.s. and yes, the rain slacked off by the time I stepped off at my station.

Grasshopper (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 09 May 2018 21:19

n interesting test for a writer.

Today (after my enjoyable bike/train/bus commute and some sit-on-my-can meetings) I slipped quietly out of work and drifted over to a fast food place. Early lunch, it isn’t too noisy and they keep the muzak to a minimum. I sat down and ate lunch while reading my prior efforts on my tinytop, then easily slid back into the story line. This was enjoyable. It’s the way writing should be. Even in a noisy plastic environment I sipped my coke and wrote. I was like a shopper in a market, picking out the words and phrases that were the most clever, the least stale. I really felt good about writing (and smiled all the way back to the office).

So now it’s last afternoon and I’m sitting here after a long day. I’ve got a couple of windbags yacking seven feet from my desk. I’ve been data-harvesting all afternoon and suffered a tedious staff meeting. Now my energy is low. I’m sipping stone-dead coffee and thinking that I’ve got a DOG EAR to get out tomorrow and I need to come up with something. I can’t seem to think straight.

But three hours ago, I was writing like a concert pianist. Now I’m like a gorilla with a suitcase.

So which is the sign of the better writer?

I considered this as a started writing this email home (which, by tomorrow, will be a blog entry). I thought about the difference in effort writing can take; spring-day-in-the-garden writing (which we dream of) as opposed to 2-am-before-the-deadline writing (that we are forced into). And if you are going to be a versatile writer, one that can work with editors under pressure and come up with solid skillful writing, you’re going to have to learn to get yourself moving when your energy levels are low and your enthusiasm is as slimy and cold as a garden slug. The interesting thing is, as I write this, I don’t hear the conversation much at all. The words are coming easier. And I’m back in my groove.

So keep this in mind – you need to be able to write when you need to, not when you want to, if you are going to produce professional prose.

Now if I could only get myself enthused to go back to work.



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