Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On Influences, Good and Bad.

Robert E. Howard

Louis Shalako

On a Facebook post by Robert J. Sawyer, regarding the show Starlost, I made a comment that was only half facetious.

What I said was that we loved those old shows—and yet it was pretty bad TV even by the standards of the day. I wasn’t referring to Starlost in particular, only making a general comment. That’s what’s weird about movie remakes of beloved old TV shows. As often as not, critics and fans alike say it’s nothing like the original. Something is wrong with it—something is somehow missing.

Yet an objective comparison would probably reveal that everyone and everything in the modern version is far superior to the original show. The writing, the lighting, the camera work, the acting and direction, the sets and locations, it’s all better in the modern, big-budget production.

Ah, but we’re not seven or eight years old anymore, either.

We have developed some critical faculties.

A case in point would be The Rat Patrol. To an objective reviewer in his mid-fifties, the writing, the story, the detail, the plots are laughably bad. Yet even now, the show has something going for it. If nothing else it still has the characters, the desert, the adventure, the camaraderie, even the weapons. I would definitely like to write a desert adventure of some kind. I got to be honest, it will be better than that.

What would it take to make a successful re-make?

For one thing, some sort of a love interest, some sort of back-story, some sort of convincing action, some sort of convincing detail, some sort of convincing story...

Our remake would not be for eight year olds. It would be for those middle-aged kids who still remember that show. 

In this Wikipedia article, you will see that the critics had a lot to say about A.E. van Vogt’s work. I’ve only read one or two of his books, one of the Weapon Shops books for sure. Some part of that book, perhaps the mysteriousness of some elements, stuck with me to the extent that I remembered the name.

“In general van Vogt seems to me to fail consistently as a writer in these elementary ways: 1. His plots do not bear examination. 2. His choice of words and his sentence-structure are fumbling and insensitive. 3. He is unable either to visualize a scene or to make a character seem real.” > Damon Knight.

That seems like fairly harsh criticism. But Phillip K. Dick listed him among his influences—and I’ve read a few Phillip K. Dick novels as well.

Now, the very fact that I remembered a name and a title speaks well of the book. I would have to say that the work influenced me in a different way than good old Rat Patrol.

That’s because bad books, bad TV and bad films influence us just as much as good books, good TV and good films. They just influence us in a different way.

I love Andre Norton. Nice, simple statement.

Her A.D. 2250, the first proper sf novel she published, (she had written other things beforehand) was the first science fiction book I ever read. I was about fourteen at the time. But when I read Return to Quag Keep, many years later, co-written with Jean Rabe, based on the popular Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game, that’s when I knew I had to write.

I had to write science fiction, and I had to submit that science fiction to some New York publishers.

(Yes, Quag Keep is fantasy.)

But I mean seriously. There have been one or two books that hit me that way over the years. Fuck, if this thing got published then I really need to get in there.

Yeah, I hated that book, for whatever reason. I have to admit, I was never a player.

D & D fans probably loved the exact same book.

They have every right to do that.

The important thing to understand is that both good and bad influences affect us as writers. We love a book, and so therefore, we want to write one just like it.

We hate a book, or at least see its imperfections because we are competent enough in the same craft, and we decide not to do it that way ourselves. We might get so pissed off that we set out to do one that’s better.

There is a scene in the Rat Patrol series. A couple of the guys are taken prisoner. They turn the tables on the enemy and grab a German officer (or whatever). Then, rather than demand the horses from their Arab captors, they let them keep their rifles and horses. It seems they would prefer to walk across the desert with the weight of a hundred pounds of chain between them. Why would the Arabs be carrying such heavy chains? There are no panniers or baskets hanging off them there camels…

They outrun the camels and the rifles, by wandering aimlessly in the desert, with a hundred pounds of chain on them. You could at least have asked for the key.

By watching some bad TV we can often get some sort of idea of what works in writing a dramatic scene, and what is going to have the audience throwing up their hands in despair—or possibly their breakfasts.

Speaking of television, I used to watch Tarzan religiously on the boob-tube. Lydie Denier (Jane) will do that for a fellow. But I used to have a few of the pulpy old paperbacks, which I got from a used book store for fifty cents or whatever.

I had a few of the Conan the Barbarian books as well.

Robert E. Howard is a good influence on my work. In The Conqueror, I originally set out to create a world and some characters. His Conan was the starting point for what was supposed to be a short story of about 22,500 to 25,000 words.

Right now, the story stands at 57,200 words and it’s still going strong. It’s completely different from anything Robert E. Howard ever wrote, and that’s okay with me.

My mystery series is heavily influenced by everyone from Agatha Christie to, well…everyone, really.

It is also different from what they wrote.

It’s just that simple, and the other thing is that I would rather be working anyways. But with my new fantasy/alternate-historical/sf world, when I do get a shorter story, it may very well use the same characters and setting, and take the whole ethos somewhere new and interesting.

We have to do something to fill up the time.

We get to live the life of a writer, an artist, we get to be those things, which sure beats being a scruffy old man in ill-fitting pants, wearing a tweed chirper cap, wandering around the local malls and making surreptitious bird calls, thereby mystifying certain truant teenage girls and stuff like that…


According to this study, writing is nothing if not quality time.

I really can’t recommend it enough.


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