Monday, December 05, 2011

Freeing The Cells

In her post of December 3, Donis Casey makes it clear that finding a suitable title for a novel can be a challenge. The same holds true for finding a title for a blog post. So, how does one go about it? Or, for that matter, how does one go about writing anything. In long-ago days before I made a really serious attempt at a novel, I liked to swap clever opinions with a colleague at the Library of Parliament here in Ottawa. Someone, I forget who, once opined that writing is easy: “You sit at the keyboard and concentrate until blood starts to seep from your forehead.” And sometimes it does seem like that. Writing can be very difficult; for me at least. For others not so hard. My friend and fellow Ottawa writer, Mary Jane Maffini, once said something along the lines that her output was only limited by the number of hours in the day that she could spend at the keyboard. Or sentiments to that effect. Much to be admired, even envied.

But to hearken back to the title of this post, I discovered an easier – if less productive – way to assuage the demands of the creative beast. FreeCell! How many games of FreeCell does it require to get from the opening sentence of one’s hoped-for novel to that much-desired Finis moment? In the case of my first book, Undertow, it was somewhere north of 10,000 games. It took me almost four years to write that book. Perhaps if I had halved the number of FreeCell games to a mere 5,000, I could have done it much more quickly. But I doubt that. The moderately challenging – if inherently silly – game did calm the fevered mind. And the book did get written.

The message being, I suppose, that writers will do odd things to get the job done.

Later on, I adopted a more complicated stratagem. Spider Solitaire. But that one really was, in the end, counter-productive. Spider Solitaire is much more complicated than FreeCell, and really does challenge; to the point that it’s often hard to think of anything other than getting the game done, and then going on to yet another game, and another, and another. And there being three levels of difficulty, that game is even more deadly in terms of time demands.

And where am I now in my effort to finish my fourth Inspector Stride novel? Back to FreeCell as it happens; 4,631 games played to date. Which could mean that I have only about 5,400 games to go before the novel’s done. Clearly I should play more, and play more often. Seriously, though, games like FreeCell are sometimes a hindrance, but at other times they are relaxing and they reduce stress.

Computers, as we all know, are a mixed blessing. We have instant access to a world of information via the internet – which in itself is another mixed blessing – but too often there is too much temptation to wander off into non-productive pursuits. Writing is like life generally. I have a self-imposed end-of-January deadline for the new Stride, and it’s a tossup whether I will actually make it. An old story; but hopefully not with a surprise ending.

To finish up this post, I will essay a piece that I will presumptuously call A Tale of Two Novels.

A month ago I dipped into my first Jack Reacher novel. It was only about five years ago, at the Left Coast Crime gathering in Bristol, UK, that I discovered there was such a creation as Jack Reacher. Lee Child was one of the keynote authors at the gathering, and he made a short speech, in which he talked about his protagonist. Like Reacher, himself, Lee Child is very tall, if not nearly as bulky. (I think Reacher tops out at about 250 pounds.) Child explained to the audience that he came up with the character’s name because, being very tall, he was often asked during visits to supermarkets, usually by older, tiny persons of the female persuasion, if he could please reach them down an item from one of the upper shelves. He then began to think of himself as a “reacher”, and thus the character’s name came to him.

I liked his story a lot, and I still do. And I wish I could say that I liked the Reacher novel that I am reading – The Affair – as much. Sadly, I do not. I am fairly certain that the book is another bestseller for Mr. Child, and good for him. But for me, despite some interesting writing and a lot of information about the United States Army, particularly the Military Police part, I am finding that my attention wanders often. It’s not a long book, and a month after starting it, it’s still not finished. Worse, I don’t really have much interest in finding out “whodunit”, who did slash the throats of all those radiantly beautiful women near an American Army base in the deep south. My main quibble with the book is the “soldier-as-superman” gambit. At one point in the narrative, Reacher goes one on four – or is it one on six? – with a collection of large and ugly local redneck inbreds, and quickly demolishes the lot of them, sending them limping back to their caves, or holes in the ground, or wherever. In another scene he casually shoots another brute in the forehead and sends his two equally odious companions scampering back to their hovels in mortal fear and dread. None of it – for me – rings true. It’s seems to me a superficial construct.

So, when I drove from Ottawa to Kingston this past weekend to visit with my daughter, I left Reacher at home on the floor beside my bed, and took with me instead a wonderful short novel by the late British author J.L. Carr – A Month In The Country. The book was released in 1980 and was shortlisted for the Booker. It was a considerable success, reprinted many times, although not likely a money-maker along the lines of Lee Child’s Reacher series. In 1987, though, it was made into a film of the same title, and starred Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh, and a young Natasha Richardson – who would, in March 2009, tragically die from injuries sustained in a ski accident in Mont Tremblant, Quebec. The film is as brilliant as the book.

Then, in one of those bizarre incidents that drive serious film lovers mad with frustration, all prints of the 35 mm master were somehow lost, and this brilliant film appeared to have vanished from the world forever. Happily, another print was eventually found in a warehouse. But then there was another long delay while ownership of the print was sorted out. Happily it was sorted out.

The film is now available on DVD in the original 96-minute version. I commend it to anyone who enjoys films of intelligence and substance. The same recommendation, of course, is made for the book.

2 comments:

Aline Templeton said...

I do so agree about Free Cell and Spider Solitaire. I told my son-in-law I limited myself to three games during working time, and he said, 'Ah yes, just enough to feed the addiction!' He's probably right; I can't bring myself to go cold turkey!

Vy Tuong said...

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