Open the Bag

Bag ShotRecently, I watched many of the A&E adaptations of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels. One of the main characters—Archie Goodwin, a private investigator played by Timothy Hutton—said a phrase over and over: “Open the bag.” I love that phrase. It means “spill your guts” or “confess.” It’s a much more interesting way of saying to someone, “Tell me everything.” But language is what makes the series and its print form so engaging.

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I’m going to open the bag (just a bit mind you) about writing and life. So here goes. Several people have asked me when they’ll see my young adult novel about elves. Short answer: I don’t know. It’s currently in review at two publishers. I don’t know what will happen to it at either place. I can say what I hope. But that’s probably already obvious to you.

Waiting is nerve wracking, isn’t it? I can’t help thinking of something Captain Wentworth said in my favorite Jane Austen novel, Persuasion: “I am half agony, half hope” (Austen 225). I won’t go into why he said that, since the resolution of the main conflict hinges on the why. But I can relate to the sentiment.

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I have another young adult novel that I’m wondering what to do with. It needs editing for one thing. Having seen some of the wonderful covers that Jason Pedersen has done for Charles Yallowitz and Ravven has done for several people, if I go the indie route for it or any other novel, I’ll need some cash to pay for a cover by either of these fine artists. They’re certainly worth it. Click on their names to get to their websites and see for yourself.

Which brings me to another subject. There are several authors I’d love to interview. But I haven’t set up any interviews lately because of a funds shortage. With interviews, I like to give away a copy of an author’s work. This is a deliberate choice I make whenever I interview someone. Buying a copy of an author’s book to give away is my way of saying, “I support you, Author.” I’ll let you know when I return to regular interviews. Those are always fun for me.

Being in this state has taught me to avoid taking even $5 for granted. Here’s a video by Ricky over at Stewdippin that best describes life for me right now:

There. If you were hoping for something more salacious, I’m sorry to disappoint. But I feel better for having opened the bag. I’m going back to my middle grade fantasy novel now. I’m in revision mode on that. It’s slow going, but I’m enjoying it. My Pinterest inspiration boards have certainly blossomed as a result. 🙂

Thanks for listening!

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. New York: Signet Classic/New American Library, 1964. First published in 1818. Print.

Book cover from Goodreads. Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin from Pinterest.

Why Nuanced Characters Matter: A Tale of Two Series

Having finally begun watching season 4 of the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars (oh Netflix, I would marry you if I could), a four-episode arc helped me decide something vital about character: the need to make characters distinct. An episode of the 2001—2002 A & E mystery series, Nero Wolfe, adapted from the novels by Rex Stout, served as an interesting contrast to those episodes, and not just because of the genre switch.

  nero-wolfe-complete-classic-whodunit-series-timothy-hutton-dvd-cover-art  Star Wars The Clone Wars Season 4 cover

This paragraph is a bit spoiler-y and rather long, so feel free to look away if you’re appalled or even bored. The four-episode arc features the clones fighting the enemy on a dark planet under the command of a Jedi hostile to clones. (If you aren’t sure who the clones are, you might click on the Star Wars link in the first paragraph.) See, the thing about clones is that they look the same. What a profound statement, huh? That’s what book learning does for you—enables you to come to sharp conclusions like that. The design team gave them different hairstyles and tattoos to make them look distinct. (See for example, Captain Rex and Trooper Fives below.) Kudos to the design team for that. But when their helmets are on, you can’t tell many of them apart, unless you’ve memorized the various design elements on the clone trooper armor. I know what you’re thinking: some fans probably could. However, I stopped caring (and I’m not saying you should), first, because of my confusion about who was who, especially when several clones would appear on the screen, all performing virtually the same action. Second, I couldn’t muster enough concern for the main antagonist—a Jedi. While a Jedi antagonist has shock value, I didn’t understand how the other Jedi could fail to confront a Jedi as hostile and unconcerned about life as he was. They usually noticed disturbances in the force. Yet none of them denounced him, because a decision had been made by the producers to make this person the antagonist without offering the why behind his decisions. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief, because I was not provided enough information about the character.

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Captain Rex and Trooper Fives from Star Wars: The Clone Wars

(If you avoided the above paragraph, it’s safe to look now.) In all fairness, the show has a slight handicap: it has to fit within a certain window—between the prequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. So the growth of the characters is limited by those parameters. Since we already know what’s going to happen to some of these characters, some of the tension is lost.

Let’s move on to Nero Wolfe. From 1934 to 1975, Rex Stout wrote a ton of books and short stories featuring Nero Wolfe. I guess you can safely say that by spending that amount of time with his main characters—New York private investigator and orchid aficionado Nero Wolfe and his operative Archie Goodwin (who narrates the stories)—Stout really knew these people.

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Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin and Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe

The thing is, Wolfe, Goodwin, the police officers (Cramer and Stebbins) often at odds with them, and Fritz Brenner (Wolfe’s majordomo) spring to life so vividly, you can almost predict what each would say when he enters the room—predict in a good way that is. You can do that, because the author, and in the case of the TV series, the scriptwriters, helped us know how these characters tick—their likes, dislikes, and idiosyncrasies (Archie’s swagger; Wolfe’s pursed lips; Cramer’s cigar chomping), without resorting to caricature. Even the steady parade of murderers and thieves (this is a mystery series after all) are given raisons d’être beyond the simple need to make them villains. They have plans and hopes and sorrows. We can even sympathize with them all the while rooting for them to get caught.

Writing vivid, nuanced characters a reader or viewer grows to care about is a tricky thing. I don’t have to tell you that, though I just typed that sentence. It means going beyond the initial decision to make someone a hero or a villain or other aspects that are essentially cosmetic. It means knowing the why behind that person’s decision to go one way or another. And that takes time and a desire on an author’s part to dig deeper.

Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe from Wikipedia. Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin from Pinterest. Captain Rex and Trooper Fives from starwars.wikia.com.