Lee Library #9 Dilbert

I have a bit of a confession to tell you.

Despite being known as a bit of a geek…I don’t like comics. They leave no impression on me, I find the vast majority little more than poorly written scrap books. Needless complicated, inbred storylines where clones, alternate realities, evil twins and god knows what else rub shoulders and expect the reader to keep up. When they try to be serious and gritty it is even worse. I have never clicked with them at all.

When I first saw Dilbert, my gut reaction was, I won’t like this. It is going to be a juvenile waste of time, yet another reason to dislike comics.

But I’ve read four books in a row, downloaded the tv series and the fifth book. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My gut doesn’t know everything clearly.

Dilbert is a white collar worker suffering through idiot managers, dementated HR staff and demotivated co-workers. Dilbert himself is well meaning enough, generally he wants to be left alone to work, but frequently suffers at the hands of the company he works for.

What I love is how well it captures the absurdity of a large corporation, the insane bureaucracy and barely controlled chaos. In my career, I have worked for two of the largest corporations in the world and it really captures the worst aspects of it. Don’t get me wrong, I think a large corporation can work well but it is so easy for it to slip into incompetence, where the organisation is so massive, it becomes an average of the thousands of people working for it, gravitating to a bland centre.

When I am having a rough day, when that cynical part of my heart wants attention, Dilbert is all the more appealing. I guarantee if you have worked at a large corporation, you will recognise the characters in it.

The writer of the comic strip, Scott Adams, has worked in this sort of environment and you can tell because it feels so authentic. This isn’t some Hollywood director writing about an evil company full of cigar chomping villains because that is how he thinks they are (having never actually worked for one). Instead, Dilbert is an accurate depiction of cubicle life.

What to learn from Dilbert about your own art?

The first few issues of Dilbert focused on his home life, like a typical sitcom, and weren’t well received. As the stories shifted more to the workplace, it really took off. Sometimes it can take a bit of time but find that unique view point only you have and bring it to life.

Lee Library#7 The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band

I have been making my way through a list of twenty books to read in your twenties which overall has been fun. There have been a few misses but I am still glad I tried them, new authors, new topics, new ways of telling stories.

About as far removed as you can get from what I would normally read is The Dirt, a book in which the members of Motley Crue recount their insane exploits. I do mean insane, these guys were animals. The reason it was on the list of twenty books was to give perspective that a life of endless partying isn’t a way to live even though the idea of it might be tempting.

The book was like watching a train wreck, I couldn’t tear myself away no matter how bad it got. I was shaking my head, revolted by their antics but I couldn’t stop reading.

At the end of it you feel as strung out and exhausted as the rock stars themselves. They are very matter of fact when discussing drugs, sex, violence, you can really feel how jaded and numb they have become to it all.

I don’t have much interest in music, even less so in rock, and even the music I do like I am generally uninterested in the biographies of the people behind it. I would not be the target audience at all but I did enjoy the book which goes to show it is always good to try something out of your familiar genres or writers.

As for your own writing, even if you think you know the kind of people who will read your work, you could be very wrong.

I will leave you with one of their less extreme tales (read below if you have a strong stomach). Think about that, this is one of the lesser examples.

***

The band were pretty much constantly having sex with women, loyalty in a relationship wasn’t something they really went for. They would see one girl, do it, then go see another right away, doing this for days at a time.

However, some of the girls they were seeing were just as bonkers, they would attack the band members and the other women regularly.

So, after they were done with a girl, they would need to ensure they didn’t smell (or taste…) like another women they would buy a burrito and put their genitals in it. That way they would smell and taste like fast food when they went to meet their next liaison straight after the last one.

Gack, felt like I was throwing up a little writing that!

Lee Library #6 Nothing Lasts Forever

“Nothing Lasts Forever” by Roderick Thorp.

For those of you not familiar, this is the novel that the film Die Hard was based on and that did not happen by accident. The book plot is essentially identical to the film with one or two very minor tweaks (the terrorists are genuine left wing extremists rather than masquerading as such, the company in question is a corrupt oil conglomerate that has done some pretty questionable things in South America as opposed to a mainly benevolent Japanese company).

Roderick Thorp wanted this story to be put on the screen and it shows throughout the novel. It is a fun novel by itself but what is more interesting is how he had this in mind when writing it. He wanted this to be made into a film from day one and had even gone as far as to consider who he wanted in the main roles – and wrote accordingly.

The action set pieces are described in such detail it was giving it to Hollywood on a silver platter. No scene in it would be difficult to film and the dialogue is simple enough to almost copy and paste into a script. Likewise, the tempo of the book is very much like an action film, more so than any I have ever read.

What can be learned from this story to improve your own writing?

If you have a clear idea of what you want your book to be, you can gear yourself towards it. What do you want this story to be?

  • If it is a stand alone novel you have no desire to turn into a franchise or the like, then there is no point having dozens of half developed plot threads as they will never be resolved.
  • If this story is going to be the beginning of an eight book franchise, you can (to an extent) take a bit more time with it, really lay the foundations of an epic. You don’t need to rush, there are other books to come which can expand on other points. Don’t be too slow or you will lose the reader but likewise there is no rush.
  • If this book is meant to be more of a cheap, pulpy thrill, don’t hesitate to include some of the archetypes common to the genre, don’t agonise over this if it is meant to be more of a guilty pleasure.
  • If it is meant to be a great piece of literature, the next great British novel, then be prepared to spend years on it.

If you know what you want your story to be, the purpose it fills in your portfolio of work, then you can go for it and ensure that objective is fulfilled. How can you achieve a goal when you don’t even know what it is?

 

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Lee Library #5 First Among Equals

Jeffrey Archer is a hugely talented writer. While most people consider Kane and Abel his best work, I have always leaned to First Among Equals.

First Among Equals refers to the idea of the British Prime Minster. Rather than a President who is the boss, the commander in chief, the PM is meant to be equal to his colleagues. Arguably that diminished with Thatcher and Blair who preferred a presidential approach  but I’m rambling.

There are 4 key characters.

  • The son of a conservative who has switched his loyalties to Labour and ran against his former friends to win a seat near Edinburgh (Edinburgh shout out woooo).
  • A conservative MP in the South of England from an aristocratic family, a representation of the old guard in the party who are feeling increasingly under assault from the newer, hungrier and more energetic Conservatives from radically different backgrounds.
  • A determined but unscrupulous Labour MP who although principled politically and refusing to back down from his hard left stance, is a total scumbag to his wife.
  • There is a newer conservative MP, not from a wealthy background, struggling to make ends meet who is enticed into a financial scandal.

The book follows their intertwining stories as the years pass towards the ultimate culmination of who out the four will become Prime Minster.

So how can this book help your own writing?

Everything in the story feels so real. The characters are not carboard cutouts in a crude backdrop of a world. From the MP bars, to the dialogue between politicians, family dynamics, the parliament itself, all of it feels so concrete that I could reach out and touch the political benches at Westminster.  It is extremely detailed descriptions that ring true, an impressive technical knowledge that is very accurate. This is hard to quantify exactly but if you read the novels, you will know exactly what I mean. I would suggest reading his novels to see how it is done, he is an amazing storyteller.

Another point is balance. Although Jeffrey Archer was a Conservative MP, he muzzles it in for the sake of the story. There are good and bad guys on both sides of the political spectrum. On the Conservative side Seymour is a slimy, self serving aristocrat but in the same party is Kerslake who is a good guy, from a modest background, trying to help. On Labour, Fraser is a decent character who went against his family out of genuine political conviction. Gould may be a hard working politician but his personal relationships are loathsome.

Imagine how boring the book would be if every Conservative politician was a straight arrow and every Labour MP a moustache twirling villain. It would be cliché and boring. The balance is what makes it interesting.

Two things to take from this book in summary.

  • Make it real
  • Balance when it comes to politics is good

On a final note, I found it very odd that the ending was changed for American audiences and several plot points were cut out -because they didn’t think Americans would follow a multiparty system? Nonsense!

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Lee Library #4 World War Cthulhu

I tend to find that most films and books around supernatural objects and the dark powers behind the universe focus on world war two, either the build it up to it or during. There is good reason for that, the Nazi leadership was obsessed with the occult, their plans for the world were horrifying and being a deranged lunatic didn’t seem to stand in the way of advancing in their empire. There is no shortage of stories where they are after the ark of the covenant, the holy grail, the spear of destiny etc.

While it is not by itself a problem, if this is the only time that you associate with these stories, that can be limiting.

World War Cthulhu is a series of short stories from various authors, great for showing battles against Lovecraftian horrors during wars you may not have considered. This is how this can help your writing, it shows you exactly how your supernatural horror or action story can be set during a time that previously you may have thought wouldn’t have been suitable.

Here are some examples of how well this worked-

The Game Changers by Stephen Mark Rainey

During the Vietnam war, a group of soldiers stumble across horrors not of this world. Very creepy story of people in a totally alien landscape as the jungle changes around them.

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The Bullet and the Flesh by David Conyers & David David Kernot

In modern day, war torn Africa, Cthulhu spawn has become a new biological weapon used by the various factions. What I liked here was how realistic they could make cosmic horrors seem. I could clearly imagine different groups in these war torn regions desperate to get their hands on these killing machines and unleashing them on an unsuspecting populace.

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Finally, my favourite

Dark Cell by Brian Sammons & Glynn Barrass

70/80’s setting that sees an agent trying to foil an IRA terrorist plot with a difference- they aren’t going to blow up a pub or murder a politician, they are going to summon a Dark Young and let it rampage through a major city.

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So if the knee jerk reaction is to set a story like this round about WW2 or an equally familiar era, why not spice it up and go for something more obscure. Vietnam war, modern day Africa, 70/80’s Irish Troubles, it can all work.

The only warning I would give is make sure you really understand the setting. Would be a bit off putting to be reading a story about the Korean war and the heroes are fighting Vietcong…

All the best folks, have a great day.

Lee Library #3 Frankenstein

Lee Library #3 Frankenstein

Not the Frankenstein, but the series of five novels by Dean Koontz.

In these novels, Dr Victor Frankenstein is alive and well in present day New Orleans and hell bent on carrying out his horrific experiments to create the New Race. His plan is to destroy all mankind and replace us with his far superior genetic creations. His original creation is still kicking around after 200 odd years and is determined to stop him, teaming up with two homicide detectives in way over their heads.

What can be learned from these novels, which I thoroughly enjoyed, to help your own writing?

There are two key points to take from it.

  • Make your characters suffer

I dreaded turning the pages at certain parts in these novels. The experiments were so horrific, the violence so casual, every time I thought they couldn’t up the pain anymore, they did. When the main characters tangle with Frankenstein, you know how close they are to danger because so many have perished fighting him and in such horrific ways.

It is not uncommon for characters to be strapped in and experimented on, eventually dying in the process. It happens to so many people, you can bet when it was happening to one fairly minor but likable character, I fully expected them to die. There had been so much unrelenting violence up until that point, I couldn’t see any reason why it would relent now.

Because Koontz doesn’t hesitate to put characters in nightmarish situations, you really do feel for them. It makes the threat of Frankenstein more real and serious.

Not every story needs to be Saw or Hostel of course. Psychological suffering or even just stress can be compelling. Some stories don’t need suffering of any kind. If you decided to go down a horror route though, making your characters suffer can really strike a chord with your readers- and I say that as a reader more than a writer.

  • Villains don’t need to have redeeming features

Similar to Kill Your Friends, where the main character was an unapologetic monster, you don’t need to give your villains soft edges.

There are times you want a sympathetic villain with aims we can understand and even in a small way support.

However, there are also times you want a real black hearted monster as the antagonist. Frankenstein abuses his wife, who he kills and clones when he gets annoyed with her. He was personal friends with Hitler, Stalin, Mao and others. His cruelty is so casual, like brutally murdering a person simply for standing in the way of his home expansion plans.

I hated Frankenstein, I wanted him to die, at several points the idea he would escape was so unacceptable I was rooting for the heroes to do anything they had to so that he would be brought to justice.

A sympathetic Frankenstein wouldn’t have provoked that sort of reaction and above all else, good writing makes you feel something.

***

It all depends on the kind of story you want to tell.

For example, you want to write a story about a spy trying to catch a terrorist. You could do a more light hearted escapade, a wristwatch that fires sleeping darts, the villain’s evil lair on the anthrax islands, a suitably sexy opposing agent. It all climaxes with our hero thwarting a missile launch. Nothing wrong with any of that, hell, sounds quite fun actually.

You decide you don’t want to do that. You want something darker, grittier.

Using the first tip there, we make our characters suffer. The spy has heard of the European Liberation Army, an anarchist group that wants to overthrow the governments of Europe. No one sees the group as that much of a threat, including our main character who seems content if a bit bored working on the case. He has a family he loves although you can see the relationship with his son is a bit strained.

There is a terrorist attack at Edinburgh airport, the main spy loses his wife and son. We see the evil terrorist organisation striking at where people are most vulnerable- they blow up an orphanage, torture and murder a lord in his home along with his family, the pain keeps raining down on the UK, you can imagine the despair as we wait to see what happens next. You have used suffering to make the spy character more interesting and sympathetic and also made us feel pity for the besieged populace.

Using the second tip, we make the terrorist leader a real villain. Supreme Commander Cobalt of the ELA is a deranged psychopath. He enjoys seeing the destruction he causes, often enjoying the scenes of carnage on the front lines with his anarchist followers. His cruelty isn’t even restricted to his enemies as we see throughout the story, failure is not tolerated in the ELA. One soldier who fails is brutally tortured to death. One cowardly MP who betrays the nation’s security services for money isn’t paid- with glee, Cobalt strangles him to death. His aim is chaos and death, survival of the fittest. He seems to despise the world, the rich for their privileged lives, the poor for not rising up, he hates democracy for being weak. Above all else he a hypocrite, he goes on about how the wealthy abuse the poor while murdering score of them himself. It becomes clear that his hatred of the rich and powerful is more to do with jealously than anything else.

Suddenly our story is looking a lot better!

Again, don’t misunderstand me, not every story needs to have suffering, pain or black hearted villains. Lots of good stories don’t have those things, but this might help if you decide to go for that.

Likewise, you might think one point here applies and not the other. For example, you decide to keep the suffering in but make Cobalt more sympathetic, representing a genuine underclass who feel there is no hope and violence is the only way forward. Or you keep Cobalt a lunatic but tone down the suffering, keeping it a bit lighter there. The terrorists launch attacks but these are thwarted, his family are kidnapped, not murdered etc. You can throw both examples out the window like in the earlier example. It is all about what you want but these are handy tips.

Hope you are all enjoying 2017 so far- I’m already begging for the weekend haha.

Lee Library #2 Miami Purity

Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks is a great book. As I said though the point of this Lee Library series isn’t to go on and on about what I like but rather recommend books which can really help your writing or how you look at stories. Even if you don’t enjoy them as works of fiction you can at least take some lessons from them.

In the first edition of this series, Kill Your Friends considered how to handle black humour in stories and up that to the max to make it work.

This novel, which I really do recommend, is a good lesson on how the tropes of a genre can be inverted to your advantage to make a more compelling story.

The story, briefly and spoiler free, is about Sherri, a sex mad stripper and dancer. She wants a new lease on life in the form of a legitimate, 9-5 job and does this by working at a dry cleaners called (you guessed it) Miami Purity. She gets involved in some messed up situations that will make your head turn as the story marches on towards its increasingly grim climax.

This book in addition to the dark themes is totally dripping with sex…poor choice of words. Oozing sex! No, that’s just as bad. Look, there is a lot of sex in it. The first two novels in the Lee Library have that in common haha I promise they aren’t all like that.

So why on earth would this book help your writing?

Let me pose you another question, what is noir? A noir book for example.

I tend to think of grizzled detectives, corruption, downer endings, femme fatales. Setting is usually a fog choked city.

Miami Purity turns all that upside down. It is set in tropical Miami, sunshine and beaches, the main character is a sexually liberated, actually a pretty happy character. However when your read this, the core of noir, that dark struggle against impossible odds usually intertwined with crime is clearly there.

So although being aware of and even enjoying genre tropes is absolutely okay, it can also be fun to invert them.  The key to doing this though is making sure you understand what makes the tropes work so you can do it well. If you try to invert fantasy novels without having read any, it won’t be very good.

I.E.

What makes sword and sorcery, Conan-style adventure stories fun is the hero taking on impossible odds and saving the day.

Trope- hero fights evil step by step until the whole area is better off and rejoicing.

I know that from reading countless fantasy books.

Inversion- the heroe’s actions have disastrous consequences that steadily make the area worse.

That would be a fun story!

So a lesson learned from Miami Purity.

I know they say don’t judge a book by a cover but I love this.

Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks is a great book. As I said though the point of this Lee Library series isn’t to go on and on about what I like but rather recommend books which can really help your writing or how you look at stories. Even if you don’t enjoy them as works of fiction you can at least take some lessons from them.

In the first edition of this series, Kill Your Friends considered how to handle black humour in stories and up that to the max to make it work.

This novel, which I really do recommend, is a good lesson on how the tropes of a genre can be inverted to your advantage to make a more compelling story.

The story, briefly and spoiler free, is about Sherri, a sex mad stripper and dancer. She wants a new lease on life in the form of a legitimate, 9-5 job and does this by working at a dry cleaners called (you guessed it) Miami Purity. She gets involved in some messed up situations that will make your head turn as the story marches on towards its increasingly grim climax.

This book in addition to the dark themes is totally dripping with sex…poor choice of words. Oozing sex! No, that’s just as bad. Look, there is a lot of sex in it. The first two novels in the Lee Library have that in common haha I promise they aren’t all like that.

So why on earth would this book help your writing?

Let me pose you another question, what is noir? A noir book for example.

I tend to think of grizzled detectives, corruption, downer endings, femme fatales. Setting is usually a fog choked city.

Miami Purity turns all that upside down. It is set in tropical Miami, sunshine and beaches, the main character is a sexually liberated, actually a pretty happy character. However when your read this, the core of noir, that dark struggle against impossible odds usually intertwined with crime is clearly there.

So although being aware of and even enjoying genre tropes is absolutely okay, it can also be fun to invert them.  The key to doing this though is making sure you understand what makes the tropes work so you can do it well. If you try to invert fantasy novels without having read any, it won’t be very good.

I.E.

What makes sword and sorcery, Conan-style adventure stories fun is the hero taking on impossible odds and saving the day.

Trope- hero fights evil step by step until the whole area is better off and rejoicing.

I know that from reading countless fantasy books.

Inversion- the heroe’s actions have disastrous consequences that steadily make the area worse.

That would be a fun story!

So a lesson learned from Miami Purity.

(I know they say don’t judge a book by a cover but I love this!)

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Lee Library #1 Kill Your Friends

 

Welcome to the first edition of the Lee Library where I talk about books that have inspired me to write. It will crop up between my usual daily blogs and is a chance for me to hopefully point you towards a book you may have been unaware of.

These won’t be books I think are just okay, no point doing that, these are the best of the best in my opinion.

In the first instalment, I have to mention the amazing book Kill Your Friends. There is some nationalistic pride that John Niven is a fellow Scot but he is a great writer regardless of this, one of my favourites. Another of his books may creep into the Lee Library at a later date.

What drew me back to this book was shocking black humour. This book is dark, very dark and not for the faint of heart. If you are easily offended, you won’t click with this book. If you need closure and a sense of karma in the universe, this book isn’t for you. Evil quite consistently prevails here- and I do mean evil. Our main character, Steven Stelfox, isn’t only a ruthless businessman (something I could respect), he is a murderous lunatic. There is no point trying to debate his good points, he simply doesn’t have any. Although there may be some sins you would be willing to forgive if you don’t mind that kind of thing, he will always up the ante to the point that will shock you.

The story is set in the pop industry in the 90’s UK, which saw bands like the Spice Girls on the rise and making millions. I like this change in the usual setting for a ruthless, career ladder climbing villain. Normally you would expect to see this in finance, banking, law, politics- but the pop scene? In my reading experience most stories set here are more about an innocent who is corrupted trying to make it as a singer/actor.

Although the plot is interesting, it is the pitch black humour that will keep you turning the pages. Stelfox is a combination of the worst things you can imagine- he despises everywhere that isn’t London, he considers the British public loathsome and happily peddles to their basic instincts. He has zero interest in personal relationships, seeing everyone as either a rival or (in the case of women) something to get in bed, then boot out when he is done.

Stelfox is likewise contemptuous of the industry he works in, considering most celebrities empty headed morons who want to sound deep but are actually totally shallow. I won’t lie, I couldn’t help but agree with that a bit.

The author doesn’t shy away from any of this or any controversy. He doesn’t hint that Stelfox thinks these things, he brutally shows us. Writing from the first person was a good choice here as it lets us really get into the diseased mind of the main character.

This is an important point if you want to go down this path with your stories- don’t be afraid to really go into the worst people capable are of if that is what your story is about. I find some people are nervous about tackling some issues because they think some people will link them with the character, especially if it is written in the first person. In a novel I wrote, The Man With The Green Tie, the main character is a bit of a cheating scumbag and like Kill Your Friends, this was written in the first person. He gleefully cheats on his wife without a second thought. I find that abhorrent but I didn’t hesitate to put it in the story. These aren’t my views but if you are a good storyteller, you can show someone believable who does these things.

What to take from this book is how to see this sort of humour done well. If you do want to tap into it and make your writing dark but also a bit funny, this book is like a how to guide. There is a plot but as I said it is totally in the background, you read on to see what the hell Stelfox is going to do next.

This certainly isn’t for everyone but I really enjoyed it as you can tell from my dog eared copy below.

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