Monday, November 30, 2015

The Walking Dead and ‘Glennanigans’: The Importance of Being Fair

*SPOILER ALERT: There are numerous spoilers in this post, including from the recently aired episodes of The Walking Dead. Most of the others are from works at least a year old, but in any event, consider yourself fairly warned.

After the recent writer shenanigans (or, if you prefer, Glennanigans) on The Walking Dead, I have to wonder if the show has jumped the shark for me.

Honestly, I wouldn’t have imagined it possible for this show, but I’m a little upset about recent events. And it has nothing to do with the usual reasons a show jumps the shark -- the story no longer being compelling, or characters becoming stale, or the tone or direction of the show evolving into something I no longer enjoy. Instead, what put me off (and a large number of other people, from the Internet screaming I’m hearing) was more about the writers being fair.

So what happened? Let’s start with Glenn. He’s a fan favorite and for good reason. He’s resourceful, resilient, and probably most importantly, he’s a good guy. He doesn’t give up. He survives. He is loyal. He forgives. He loves. In a very real way, his character is the emotional core of the show, or at the very least, its moral center.

Nicholas and Glenn on top of the dumpster
In a recent episode, he was out on a mission with a newer character, Nicholas (who had actually tried to murder him at one point last season, but Glenn was now trying to help him earn redemption…talk about forgiveness!) and the two of them were cornered by zombies in an alley. Trapped atop a dumpster and surrounded by ravenous walkers, things looked pretty bad for our hero. Nicholas apparently thought so, too, because he opted to shoot himself in the head, and as he fell from the dumpster top, he took Glenn down with him. The scene ended with a shot of Glenn laying on his back in apparent agony while walkers tore into what appeared to be his guts, eating him alive.

Pretty powerful stuff. In fact, I let out an involuntary “Oh, no!” of dismay as it occurred.

Okay. So far, so good. A character I love died a horrible death. Such an event sends a strong signal to the viewer. It says anyone can die. It means that every danger that is presented henceforth has to be taken seriously. The end result is that the tension in the storytelling is increased. And that’s a good thing, right?


So Glenn’s death was a horrible, but good, thing. Right?


Here’s why. He didn’t die.

That’s right. The Walking Dead spent three (three!) episodes exploring other story threads, leaving the viewer hanging without closure. When the story swung back around, we got to see the scene again…only this time, the camera angle pulled back further. We see that when they fell, Nicholas landed on top of Glenn. The zombies are still feasting, but instead of eating Glenn’s entrails, it is Nicholas that they are tearing apart. Glenn scrambles underneath the nearby dumpster and waits hours until the coast is clear.

He survived.

Which is very Glenn, by the way. I love him for it.

But I am angry with the writers. Because they cheated, plain and simple. They didn’t play fair.

Stephen King talked about this at some length in his novel, Misery. If you recall, in that book a crazy superfan named Annie Wilkes rescues Paul Sheldon, her favorite author after he crashes on a snowy road. While nursing him to health, Annie discovers that Paul has killed her favorite character and she demands that he “fix” it. Starting to realize at this point how batshit crazy she is, Paul agrees to her terms. He cobbles together a new storyline that is the functional equivalent of the Glenn situation. Essentially, he cheats, changing what has already occurred in the story the reader has read. Annie goes crazy [crazier?] and calls him on his cheating, refusing to accept this draft. He was being a “dirty bird” and so she forces him back to the drawing board, demanding that he play fair. No deus ex machina allowed for Annie Wilkes.

[Jeez, have I become Annie Wilkes?]

Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about cliffhangers here. I’m cool with cliffhangers. In fact, I love them. I mean, I don’t love the six year cliffhangers that G.R.R. Martin specializes in, but overall, cliffhangers are powerful. They’re fair. I recently watched the entire Sons of Anarchy series, and several season finales used significant cliffhangers to great success. One season ended with the protagonist’s mother murdering his wife, followed by another club member killing the responding police officer. When the protagonist arrives home to see this mess, he is arrested for the murder of his wife. Fade to black.

Thankfully, Sons of Anarchy didn’t get cancelled before the next season started. We might have had another Southland on our hands.

Going back to G.R.R. Martin for a moment, I’m okay with something he’s done on more than one occasion – that is, the use of ambiguity. When Sandor Clegane (The Hound) knocked Arya on the head with an axe in the immediate aftermath of the Red Wedding, it wasn’t immediately clear if she was killed or merely knocked unconscious. The fact that The Hound was a character of questionable morals and loyalty only made it easier for the reader to worry that she had been killed. After all, Martin had already offed Robb Stark and his mother at the Red Wedding just a chapter before, not to mention killing Eddard Stark way back in the opening novel. Any reader who feared for Arya was being reasonable in those concerns. But Martin was ambiguous enough in the way he wrote that scene that when it turned out that The Hound had knocked Arya out so that he could stop her from running to her certain death, no one cried foul. The reader (most of them), consciously or unconsciously, sensed that Martin had played fair.

The Walking Dead did not, at least not in my opinion. The initial shots painted a picture that pretty clearly told the story of Glenn’s death. Then, several episodes later, they changed what happened. What a bunch of dirty birds.

Now maybe I am hypersensitive to this. I write in the mystery genre. No other genre demands such a high level of fairness from its authors. You absolutely dare not cheat as a mystery writer. It is inexcusable to introduce a critical fact at the last minute to resolve the mystery. Or to keep a critical fact from the reader (without telling the reader you’re doing so). Or cheat in any other way, because mystery readers will call a penalty each and every time. They’ll clobber you with justifiably bad reviews, bad word of mouth, emails to the author, and by refusing to buy any more of your books. Offend the mystery reader’s sense of fairness at your own risk.

And I’m cool with this. It is a high standard, but a fair standard.  It is what the standard should be.

Storytelling is a bit of a social contract, and it dates back to the times of campfire tales, or traveling bards. The storyteller weaves the story for the listener, and maybe she tries to fool the listener at times, but always in a way that is objectively fair. So it is almost hard-wired into our system to expect that fairness.

Someone reading this might be tempted to think I’m made about being fooled by The Walking Dead’s writers. I’m not. I don’t mind being fooled. It doesn’t happen often, but if it happens fairly, I’m actually delighted by it. For example, The Sixth Sense fooled me. That’s right, even though I figure out virtually every movie I see well before the “reveal”, I did not figure out that Bruce Willis was a ghost until the end when Shyamalan purposefully told me so. I was simply too distracted by the intriguing story of that poor kid who saw dead people to do the math, or even to know there was a math problem to solve. The clues were certainly there, but I was caught up in the experience and didn’t catch them. I didn’t even look for them. And when it all came together, my reaction was two-fold. The first was to say, “Wow, that was a cool twist. Well done.” The second was to think, “I should have figured that out.”

Notice I didn’t react with “That’s not what happened!”?

That’s because in The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan played fair. He was no dirty bird. In fact, he played exceedingly fair, sprinkling clues throughout the film. A few people I know did figure it out. That’s how fair it was.

Were these recent Glennanigans that The Walking Dead pulled also fair?

No. At least, not to my mind. I wouldn’t have spent 1800-plus words chattering about it if it had been fair. It wasn’t a matter of clever film-making or hiding clues in plain sight or a cliffhanger or even an ambiguous scene. It was a dirty bird play.

So what’s the outcome? I mean, if this was a mystery novel or crime drama, we all know what the response would be. Close the book. Ban the author. Stop watching the show. A total freeze out. Playing unfair like this is a death sentence in the mystery genre. But for TV? For the horror drama genre?

Yeah, not so much.

Sure, the relationship has been damaged. My trust has been violated, if you’ll permit me to be a little dramatic. The Walking Dead has always been a show where anyone might die, although as the series has rolled on, a few people seemed to achieve untouchable status. Glenn was probably second only to Rick, the lead character, in that standing. So killing him was a bold move and would have ramped up the tension every time anyone was in danger, including those we thought of as untouchable. Now, those same situations won’t be as tense or as worrisome. With their Glennanigans, the writers have told us (by cheating) that those untouchable characters are probably not in mortal danger. They went from becoming potential Eddard Starks to being MacGyvers. And while you can still have tension in those kinds of situations, it is nowhere near as high as if you believe the hero might actually die. The Walking Dead has lost some of that.

Did the show jump the shark? Maybe.

Will I still watch it? Probably.

The show has built up a lot of credit with me over the previous five seasons. I still care about the characters and what happens next. So I will almost certainly hang around a while longer. But if the show pulls another Glennanigan, I’m probably gone.

One thing is for sure. As an author, you might see some cliffhangers from me. You might see some cleverly hid clues or some that are in plain sight that I hope you miss in the sound and fury of the story. You might even see the occasional withheld (but announced) clues or some Martin-esque ambiguity. But I promise you this…no Glennanigans.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

As promised...

Friend of the Departed will be out on November 19th!

This is the third novel in the Stefan Kopriva mystery series, and features Kopriva helping out someone who has helped him in the past...

When defense attorney Joel Harrity asks Kopriva to look into a prospective client’s guilt or innocence in the murder of her husband, he reluctantly agrees. He quickly discovers that answers to even the simplest of questions are nearly impossible to find. The deeper Kopriva digs, the more no one seems to want him to find the truth behind the death of Harrity’s friend.

Faced with a possible murderer that won’t answer questions, a police department asking the wrong people the wrong questions, and threats of violence from an unknown source, Kopriva forges on, determined to discover the truth….even if it kills him.

You can pre-order this book now for $2.99 instead of the regular price of $4.99, which is what it'll be once released.

Friday, October 16, 2015

On the horizon...

....the third book in the Stefan Kopriva mystery series, entitled Friend of the Departed.

It is currently out to beta readers, and due back at the end of the month...which means that barring a major rewrite, this one could make it out sometime in November/December of this year.

Just sayin'.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Crime Cafe Interview

Recently, Debbi Mack (author of the Sam McRae series) interviewed me for her video podcast, The Crime Cafe.

Here's what we had to say...

I didn't realize the camera was going to be on me the whole time, or I would have sipped less coffee!

Thanks to Debbi for asking some great questions and giving me a chance to share my thoughts with the Internetverse!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Tremendous Things I've Seen So Far Today...

1.  My beautiful, sleepy wife as I said goodbye for the week...

2. The simple, joyful, unconditional love on the faces of my dogs as I scratched and petted them before I set out for the airport.

3. A massive hawk poised on a fence post, taking flight as I drew near...

4. A doe and her two fawns scampering across the road, only to stop a few yards into the forest and stare at me with those pretty eyes of theirs...

5. Alaska Airlines employees scrambling to solve a delay problem they didn't cause, all the while treating people well, trying to take care of them, and keeping their collective cool in the process.

6. The white-capped peak of Mt. Rainier jutting up through the billowy clouds as I spotted it from the airplane window, looking like an island in the sky.

7. The inside of the Alaska Airlines Board Room, making a six hour delay seem less onerous as I see how the other half lives...

8.  Fifty-five thousand words of finished first draft of Friend of the Departed, the third Kopriva mystery novel...and the invitation of the empty page beyond, with six hours to answer that call.

I won't reach St. Louis, Missouri, until midnight CST. I wonder what else I will see today.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Things I Learned At Last Night's Concert...

In no particular order...

1. Not only does Melissa Etheridge play her passionate, poetic songs with intense, raspy, smoky vocals and impressive guitar strumming...but she can play some damn fine lead, too. I always knew she was a killer strummer, but never realized she could also walk the frets like she did.

Oh, and the arrangement of "Like the Way I Do"? Worth the price of the ticket alone.

2. At 70, Blondie's Deborah Harry still has a surprisingly strong voice.

3. Joan Jett can bring it. Man can she ever. Still an edgy, punk, unapologetic piece of rock and roll beauty.

Another musical interlude...."I got a little lost along the way, but I'm just around the corner to the light of day....YEAH!"

4. Taking your parents to a rock concert can be cool. Especially when you've gotten to know them as the people they are instead of the roles they play, now that we're all adults.

5. Taking your adult daughter to a rock concert can also be cool. Especially when you see how she's grown up to be a pretty awesome person.

6. Not being able to take your wife (not feeling well) is decidedly not cool. On the flip side, knowing she's feeling better is cool, though.

7. People at rock concerts like to walk around a lot. Which I don't get. The music is up there, people.

8. Even more than airports, a rock concert is a great opportunity for a writer to people watch. Especially when said people walk around a lot. And drink. And dance. And drink. And fight. And sometimes listen to music.

9. A good rock concert actually makes me happy.

10. Art, in any form, inspires artists (of any kind).

Thanks for a wonderful evening, ladies.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Two Years On...

It's been just over two years since I made the decision to retire from police work, and write full time. After twenty years (and a day!) on the job, I hung up the gun and badge for the keyboard.

So how's it been?

In a word, great.

But then again...not so great.

What's that mean? Well, the reality is that I still haven't fully embraced being nothing except a writer. Even as I retired, I started taking on different projects in writing, editing, and teaching. It only took about six months to get to the point where I'd overloaded myself. I was teaching classes at the community college and at the university. I mentored in and then began teaching Leadership in Police Organizations (LPO) for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. I jumped into collaborations. I took on an editing role in an onerous project. I taught a series of six-week writing seminars.

I'm sure I'm forgetting some things, like appearances, beta reads, judging a writing contest, and a couple of conferences. The point is, I wasn't writing full time. I'd traded my police career for about three smaller careers, only one of which was my own writing.

The editing job didn't work out. The material simply never got to me as a first draft, and the writer needed more help than I could provide (time-wise) to get that first draft written. So about six months after the deadline for the first draft, I exercised my out clause. Thus began the process of paring down my commitments. 

I had the pleasure of teaching a series of six-week writing seminars to a small class of writers. The first seminar focused on writing a novel, the second on revision, and the third on publishing. The writers who attended were awesome, and being surrounded by their creativity while we worked together on the craft was a blast. I'll be shocked if their novels don't start popping up on Amazon before too long.

The work I did (and do) teaching criminal justice was (and is) very rewarding, and the students are quite varied. I've had students getting their degree to pursue CJ jobs to adults continuing their education to better themselves and progress in their careers. Both are exciting people to be around. Teaching LPO all over the country has kept me close to the kinds of people I admire -- cops who are the ones who run toward danger while others are running away -- and allowed me to help in a small way to shape the role of police leadership in this nation. Extraordinarily gratifying work, and often very moving.

All that teaching comes at an emotional price, though. Anyone who has taught will tell you that. Teaching takes it out of you, if you're doing it right. If you're putting in the amount of energy and passion that your students deserve, it is physically and mentally exhausting.

That took a toll on my writing, both in terms of volume and intensity. I got a lot less written than I'd expected or hoped. In fact, if it hadn't been for collaborations, I would really have sputtered in that department. As it turned out, since retiring I've published four books, two of which were collaborations. Another collaboration is scheduled for a September release.

Like I said, those three other writers kept me strumming.

Something else was going on, though, especially over the last year. When I did have time to write on my solo work, I wasn't feeling the drive. The thrill of the keyboard wasn't there as often. I started one novel, then set it aside. I started a different one, set it aside. A third, same thing. A romance collaboration I was working on foundered as well, and at least part of the reason was that my motivation, my desire, had ebbed.

Now, that's a scary thought. I mean, think about it. Your dream is to be a writer. From the age of ten, that's how you self identify. You retire early to pursue your dream. You write. You publish. And then, one just aren't feeling it any more. It's just not there. And so you gotta ask, who are you, if not a writer?

I also wondered if maybe I was afraid. I've come across more than a few people in this world who say their dream is to be a writer. But they never really do anything to make that dream a reality. I think some of those people just don't have the freedom to try due to life's responsibilities. For others, it really isn't their greatest dream, so they don't pursue it. But some people don't go after their dream because if they try and fail, it can't be a dream anymore. If you never try, you get to keep the dream alive. I know it sounds silly, but people do this all the time. I had to wonder if I was falling prey to this mind trap.

I thought a lot about this question, believe me. 

And I slowly came to realize that the reason I was feeling that spark and fire for my writing was because I'd filled my [new] work life with too many other things, things that required a great deal of emotional energy (learning curriculum, teaching). There simply wasn't any energy left when I turned to writing. And because of that, the writing started to feel like a task some of the time, instead of a joy.

"Some" of the time. If it weren't for my collaborators, it might have been "all" of the time. 

So what to do?

Well, I had to restore some balance. And that meant making some choices. "They weren't terribly hard choices. I knew that being a writer was who I was. So when I terminated the editing contract, thus began my mission in 2015, which I have dubbed "The Year of Saying No."

Of course, I still had to do all the stuff I'd already said yes to. And I really didn't want to stop doing everything I was doing. Teaching LPO is especially rewarding. So I kept the LPO work, because it's just too important to let go. And I kept the university classes, but those are hybrid courses that mostly involve online work, so there's flexibility. 

However, I quit saying yes to new things, and when the opportunity arose, I walked away from other things. For instance, I was teaching at the community college, covering classes for a friend for a couple of years. When he said he'd be able to take the classes back early if I wanted, I definitely wanted. Great teaching experience, but it was a win/win to hand it back to him.

Early on, I decided I'm not going to any conferences this year (though I'd love to hit LCC next year).

I also declined to judge this year's contest.

And so on.

I kept saying yes to great writing ventures, though. Right now, I have several collaborations in the works. Those projects definitely bring energy to the table, and it's great to work with other writers.

But [almost] everything else was No.

Slowly, as I shed different commitments (and finished various tasks), something happened. I started to get excited about story ideas again. I started feeling some eagerness to dive into this story or that character. Energy was back in my keyboard, not just for collaborative work, but for my solo efforts as well. Now my hesitations I'm encountering aren't about whether I have the energy to work on something but on the artistic merit or the elements of the craft that I need to improve on. 

In other words, not whether to play the game, but how to play it. 

That's a glorious feeling.

I learned something else along the way. Or rather, had it restored to me. I'm talking about perspective. There I was, fortunate enough to have multiple opportunities to pursue, and the chance to make a difference in people's lives by teaching, and I was allowing myself to be stressed over them rather than fully embracing the experience. 

And there I was, with an opportunity to be a [mostly] full time writer, something most every other writer in the country would kill for, and I wasn't taking complete advantage of it. I was letting a golden opportunity slip by, day by day. We only have so many days in this world. And while I wasn't wasting mine, I wasn't using them all to their potential. I was fortunate, and was not appreciating that good fortune.

I've come to realize all of that, and to fully appreciate my luck, and my opportunity to live the life I've always wanted to live. I've regained that perspective. Now, I'm sure most people would say I'd have to be thick to have lost it in the first place and I won't argue with you on that count. But when you're caught up in the midst of it all (no matter what "it" is), it is easy to lose sight of the big picture, and I'd venture a guess that was what happened in my case.

It's not a bad thing, really. Rather, it's a good reminder of what is truly important in this world to me. It had the ancillary effect of making me more cognizant of those closest relationships in my life, and always striving to improve those. Because who you are is important, but so are the relationships with those you're with. No matter how strong they are, you can always work on them. One thing I've noticed as I've grown don't make a ton of new friends. It isn't like elementary school anymore. And family may be family, but family are people, so you still gotta nurture those vines.

So, let's come full circle. This writing journey began two years ago. It's been a great ride so far, even if it has had some fits and starts along the way. As I move forward, it is with re-dedicated energy and a sense of balance. I've put out four new books since retiring, and a fifth is on the way in September. I see greater output on the horizon, so it should be a fun journey. I hope you'll come along. 

After all, if you've come this far, why not come a little further?