Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Book Review: Severance Package, by Duane Swierczynski

With Severance Package, Duane Swierczynski, author of The Blonde, The Wheelman, and Marvel Comics' X-Men series Cable, has written a furiously-paced crime thriller. Severance Package concerns seven employees of a financial services company called to a Saturday morning meeting in a downtown Philadelphia high rise. Like much about this novel, no character is exactly what he or she first seems. No plot point is presented without complication.

The story shifts into warp speed early on when the boss, David, calls the Saturday meeting to order by informing his underlings that the floor they are on has been secured so nobody can enter or exit without triggering nasty poisonous gas. Their company, actually a front for a covert government agency, is getting shut down. And instead of laying people off, this company's downsizing severance package includes death. All employees are instructed to either drink a cup of poisoned champagne or take a bullet to the head. Without giving much more of the plot away, I can tell you that only one employee goes for the champagne, thinking it's some kind of twisted corporate trust game. When one of the underlings shoots the boss, all hell breaks loose.

As far as characters, there's Molly, the boss's mousy assistant. Jamie, the word nerd who writes press releases. Ethan, ex-military, ex-special forces. Nichole, a spreadsheet workhorse who turns out to be pretty handy with a gun. And so on. The characters are just above stock, but it's not really character development you come to Severance Package looking for. It's action. And this book's got it.

Over the next 263 pages each employee scrambles around the building's 36th floor trying not to die. The timeline of the novel only arcs a couple hours, if that. It's a testament to Swierczynski's pacing that he keeps all his balls in the air expertly, even introducing a hapless security guard who would rather not have to play hero. All the while a pair of men in Edinburgh work a bank of surveillance cameras, keeping check on the unfolding action. It's visceral storytelling that has roots in the cross-cutting style of suspense movies and the dramatic, stylish pull of left-to-right comic book frames. It makes sense then that the pages of the book are peppered with black and white illustrations by Dennis Calero.

It's a body count story, and these are by nature not heavy on the character development. From Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians to Koushun Takami's Battle Royale, there's an inherent drama in finding out who dies next and how. But it's low-calorie, binge-and-purge fiction, with the thrill coming during the reading, not afterwards.

So that means it's all about the ride. And this novel offers a doozy, full of plot twists, double crosses, daring escapes, and frenetic moments where characters you thought were dead come back into play. Taken at this level, the ride is entertainingly fast and well-drawn, and at times almost believable. I recommend reading the book quickly. If you put it down for too long, the plot holes begin to burn away at the left side of your brain.

Violent and fast, giddy and gory, there's a lot to like about Severance Package. Take a ride.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Lost in the Details

I've spent two days writing a scene where one of my characters gets in a freight elevator and rides it up to her loft. Two days. Sometimes the descriptions that encompass small details, everyday actions, take the longest time to render. I might spend twenty minutes writing a paragraph that sums up the vagaries of the human condition. But what about when a character checks her email? Or makes a phone call? Or cooks dinner? These everyday details throw me. How do you describe the commonplace without sounding rote? Or harder still, how do you make these actions convey meaning specific to the character?

I look to other writers to guide me. The action in Stewart O'Nan's novella, Last Night at the Lobster, takes place over one day and (last) night. Because it's a short novel, about the closing of a franchise restaurant and how that affects the employees, there's no room for florid description or long, overheated sentences. Many times I was struck at how O'Nan concisely moved his main character, the restaurant manager, Manny, from point A to B:

"Manny strides to the far end of the bar, dips his hip at the corner, then squares, stutter-steps and shoulders through the swinging door." It's not just movement, it conveys something about the character. Manny's done this a million times before, it's rote to him, but O'Nan makes it feel fresh. It's worth quoting the next line: "It should be no surprise that his body has memorized the geometry of the Lobster, but today everything seems alien and remarkable, precious, being almost lost." We get the memorization part, and it's alien because the place closes for good at the end of the night, making the whole day take on a new quality.

How do characters act when they fight? What is it about their postures and gestures that suggest their inner works? In Richard Yates' modern-novel template Revolutionary Road, Frank and April Wheeler are having another fight. Frank has stopped the car at the side of the road at night, and both are out. April won't tell Frank why she's mad at him. In reaction: "His arms flapped and fell; then, as the sound and the lights of an approaching car came up behind them, he put one hand in his pocket and assumed a conversational slouch for the sake of appearances." Frank feels powerless to understand April's anger (flapping falling arms) and even in the dark feels compelled to keep up appearances.

Richard Russo, a master of small town moments, writes well of cooks and the workings of restaurants and diners. In his first novel, Mohawk, Russo frames some of the story about the denizens of the town of Mohawk, New York at the Mohawk Grill. It's the start of the novel, and Harry, who runs the Grill, is starting his daily ritual, as Wild Bill looks on. "'Hungry?' Harry says. Wild Bill nods, and studies the grill, which is sputtering butter. Harry lifts a large bag of link sausages and tosses several dozen on the grill, covering its entire surface, then separates them with the edge of his spatula, arranging them in impressive phalanxes...(Wild Bill) watches hypnotized as the links spit and jump." It's a nice touch to see an everyday activity through the eyes of the one person in town who appreciates it. We've all seen the spit and jump of cooking food. It's this attention to detail throughout Russo's writing that makes you feel like you're looking through a door propped open by the only person who knows how.

What about recreating a specific historic moment? In Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, he configures the small human and mechanical gestures of lower Manhattan on the morning in the early 70s' when Philippe Petit walked between the Twin Towers: "Around the watchers, the city still made its everyday noises: Car horns. Garbage trucks. Ferry whistles. The thrum of the subway. The M22 bus pulled in against the sidewalk, braked, sighed down into a pothole. A flying chocolate wrapper touched against a fire hydrant. Taxi doors slammed. Bits of trash sparred in the darkest reaches of the alleyways. Sneakers found their sweetspots. The leather of briefcases rubbed against trouserlegs. A few umbrella tips clinked against the pavement. Revolving doors pushed quarters of conversation out into the street." Without following one character or sticking to one event, McCann places the reader at a real moment in time with a specificity of place.

Sometimes these descriptions are what genre writers do best; economically flicking through a character's movements to get them to the next scene of action or romance or suspense. Take this nugget early on in Dashiell Hammett's The Dain Curse, as we first meet the Continental Op, looking for evidence in a front yard: "I put (the diamond) in my pocket and began searching the lawn as closely as I could without going at it on all fours." He doesn't have time or inclination to crawl around, but needs to get close enough to rut around the grass just the same.

So, what about my character taking the elevator? I can take a lesson from Frank Wheeler, on his way up to his dreary job: "...he obeyed the pointed finger of the elevator starter without quite being aware of it, nor did he notice which of the six elevator operators it was who sleepily made him welcome...Pressed well back in the polite bondage of the car, he heard the sliding door clamp shut and the safety gate go rattling after it, and as the car began to rise he was surrounded by the dissonant conversation of his colleagues."

It's not about showing what a character does, it's showing how she does it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Introducing a Wonderful Storyteller

Allow me to introduce a talented storyteller, a precocious creative force. An animator and writer, I've known him for many years. He's my nephew, Devin Johnson and he's created a beautiful short film for my sister. Both the sister and the film are called Robin.

Check out the film HERE. It's a gem, a must see, and invites multiple viewings. It gets many thumbs straight up and begs the question: when when when will we get to see more films or read more stories this young, but fully-formed talent. Actually, he's got a blog called Fluorescent Moon, where you can check out some of his other animated films. Enjoy, and let me (or him) know what you think.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Busy Season

How do you write during the busy season? I blogged nine times last December (yep, this blog is over a year old) and I'm not sure how I did it. This year it's all I can do to get to work on time, prepare for the gift-giving holidays and family commitments, and pick up a Christmas tree. Meanwhile I'm working on posts for blogs not my own. One about movies that I started back in late summer. The other will be my first post for a super secret, not-yet-live group blog that I'm helping start (more on that later). Meanwhile, I can't help but check the website of the lit mag for which I have a story coming out in this month (more on that later as well).

My intention with this blog is to come up with informative, entertaining posts, as many as I can a month. My problem with this is that I end up spending hours on a post. Adding links, adding photos, forgetting to edit and censor the writing. Writing to be concise becomes folly. Still, this blog has given me the opportunity to do different types of writing that I would not have otherwise written. Book reviews, posts about buying books, about movies, interviews. I want to do more interviews, I have a list of post topics that I continue to add to, I have a book I just finished reading and want to review.

Question: what do you want to see when you visit a blog? What holds your interest? What do you like about Unreliable Narrator? What would you like to see more of? Remember, requests are welcome.

Have a great busy season. And hopefully we'll see more of each other next year.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Reference Guides for Writers

Imagine sitting before a blank monitor ready to start writing Chapter 1 in a series of what you hope to be a multi-chaptered novel. You want to start with the weather. Bad idea. Wait, better idea: start with your main character waking to the sound of nature. A bird call. That's the ticket. More specific, although still mysterious. But, what kind of bird?

That opens an entire world of questions. What time of day is it? Where is your character? Small town by the Atlantic? City by the Yangtze River? Is it morning? Is it winter? You need to answer a few of those questions. And when you narrow that down (see, I'm helping you start your novel!), grab the nearest bird guide and start flipping those pages until you find the perfect bird native to your location.

Sure, finding out things about stuff on the Internet is convenient and timely. But nothing compares to owning a few dog-eared guide books to count on for information that doesn't change overnight. Like information about birds. I recommend The Sibley Field Guide to Birds, the classic bird guide by David Allen Sibley. It's a compact guide with thousands of meticulous illustrations of birds, along with maps of the country colored to show what areas they spend quality time. My guide is about the size of a mass market paperback, so you can thumb through it while staring out your back window at some bird you need to identify for your book.

How about trees? Your noisy bird is sitting on a tree branch. What the hell kind of tree is that again? I recommend The Easy Tree Guide, published by Falcon Guides. This full-color book dedicates two pages to each tree, one page a photograph of said tree, the facing page a breakdown of the leaf structure, height, and details of where you can find said tree. The trees are organized by leaf shape. So, it takes some getting used to if you don't know what you're looking for. But what better way to get to know trees than reading a book about them? You have to start someplace.

After your bird gets tired of singing, he flies up to a roof. The roof of the house your main character lives in (or lives next door to). Need some historical and architectural context to describe the house? Do you forget what eaves and dormers are? What if your character lives in the 1800s? What kind of houses were around then? In Virginia?

I highly recommned Gerald Foster's American Houses, a field guide to the architecture of the home. This guide contains photographs and illustrations of houses, including floor plans so you can see what went on inside as well as out. Key elements of all houses are included. It's organized chronologically, so if you know the era of the house you want to write about, you just head to that chapter. You'll find out that the Craftsman style was popular between 1900 and 1930. What's a Center-Passage House (1700-1860)? Just turn to page 94 to find out. Each house type and style is detailed in accompanying text that puts all American houses in the context of the times in which they were built, and describes their influences. It has a complete glossary.

Say you're writing a fantasy, and your bird of choice flies from your house's roof and lands on a seventeenth century cannon (long story). Or a you're writing an adventure and the bird lands on a derrick of an oil production platform. Maybe the bird is attracted to the mouth of a cave, then flies in. You need to know about these disparate objects, but you may not even know what they're called, let along how to describe them.

You need the Macmillan Visual Dictionary. Not a guide per se, this dictionary includes 3,500 color illustrations of everything from, well, oil derricks to caves. Each image has terms defining what the areas of the subject are called. And in the case of a cave, the illustration shows a cross section, so you see the inside and the outside. My copy is from 1995, bought as a remainder at New England Mobile Book Fair years ago. I still keep it on the shelf and thumb through it. Not only do I often find contained what I need to describe, but I get ideas. Subjects range from astronomy and geography, to the human body, to house furniture, gardening tools, heavy machinery, and weapons.

Weapons. For when your bird characters revolt against human-kind, and need something to fight with.