And maybe you’ve heard of her? I don’t know where this came from (suppose I could Google it) but my mother used to quote it to me often enough that I always kept my hair out of my face lest I be mistaken for her:
There was a little girl/who had a little curl/ right in the middle of her forehead
And when she was good/she was very, very good
And when she was bad/ she was horrid.
I get accused of being nice a lot. (“Why do strangers feel the need to tell me about their colonoscopies?” “It’s because you seem so nice.”) but the truth is, every once in a while I can be really, really mean.
I see a lot of people posting rules for writers. I’m not a big believer in generic rules. I kind of think writing is an area in which we all need to find our own way. What I have are strictly rules for me, though if anyone else wants to adopt any of them, they are, of course, welcome to do so. The thing is, I find inspiration in two types of writing — that which strikes me as really, really good, and that which strikes me as really, really bad. This is a list of rules I made for myself from things that either amused or annoyed the hell out of me.
I apologize in advance if I’m insulting something that is near and dear to someone’s heart.
The Dancing Chicken Rule — Many years ago I had the extreme misfortune of seeing the movie Quest For Camelot. Near the beginning there is a part where the main character, a small girl, suffers the tragic death of her father. She expresses her grief in a slow, sad musical number that segues without breaks into a silly, slapstick bit with dancing chickens. This was the inspiration for The Dancing Chicken Rule: Do not careen wildly between comedy and tragedy.
The Insane Demigod Rule AND The Welcome Back From The Dead Handshake Rule— During the horrible fifth season of the previously enjoyable Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Hercules starts out devestated by the tragic death of his best friend, Iolaus. Then he has a fling with a thoroughly unlikeable Irish demigod chick. Then he has to fight a demon to save Iolaus’ soul (a story arc that violates The Dancing Chicken Rule, but that’s another matter). Then he gets a dorky, substitute Iolaus from another dimension and tells him less-than-flattering stories about the real Iolaus. Then he wanders off to judge a fashion show. Finally, last episode of the season, he gets the real Iolaus back, greeting him with a welcome-back-from-the-dead handshake and telling him to calm down and stop scaring people. What I get out of this mess is The Insane Demigod Rule: Emotions should be appropriate and consistent (unless, of course, the character is supposed to be insane!) and The Welcome Back From The Dead Handshake Rule: The payoff has to be worth the journey.
(I could also liken a story with an emotionally unsatisfying resolution to sex without an orgasm, but somehow I think that’s an entirely separate blog post … )
The King of Corinth Rule — Another one inspired by Hercules. In an early episode, Herc and Iolaus must save the spirit of an innocent young man from being condemned to Tartarus by forcing Sisyphus, the evil king of Corinth, to take his rightful place in the underworld. Later we meet Jason of the Argonauts for the first time when he is the troubled king of Colchis. Then, in The Wedding of Alcmene, Jason must give up the throne of Corinth in order to marry Hercules’ mother Alcmene, with whom he has been secretly having an affair since he brought her the news of her husband, Amphitryon’s, death in battle. This would have been while she was pregnant with Hercules. In later flashback episodes and in the short-lived spinoff, Young Hercules, we meet Jason again when he is the crown prince of, you guessed it, Corinth, which is being ruled by his father Aeson. Oh, and this Jason is only a few years older than Hercules, whose mother he’s been having an affair with since before . . . Hercules . . . was born . . . .? Ergo, The King of Corinth Rule: Continuity Counts, Dammit!
The Blue Monkey Rule — When Sir Arthur Evans discovered the ruins of the palace at Knossos, on the island of Crete, he devoted the rest of his life to studying it. Perhaps unsuprisingly, he became enamored of the idea that this culture had been a utopia, a bright oasis of beauty, peace, culture and civilization in the darkness of the ancient world. To a certain extent, there is some evidence to support this interpretation. They did, after all, have flush toilets. Sir Arthur, though, took this idea so much to heart that he tended to weight his interpretation of everything he found to favor the people of ancient Crete. (Evidence of cannibalism? Nonsense! It was just a burial ritual to put children’s bones in cooking pots with edible crustaceans and NO I DON’T SEE ANY TOOTH MARKS!) The most famous example of Evans’ fancies involves the reconstruction of a frescoe from fragments recovered on the floor below where it had been. Sir Arthur’s reconstruction, using only a small percentage of original fragments and a lot of imagination, depicted a comely young man with his skin dyed blue gathering flowers in a garden. A later researcher, noting stylistic similarities with another period fresco in Africa, reassembled the piece using a much higher percentage of original material. In his version, the creature capering among the saffron flowers is a blue monkey. The Blue Monkey Rule (applies mostly to historicals): No place has ever been perfect. Perfect places aren’t real.
The “Hi, Spock! Where have you been?” Rule — This rule was inspired by one of the pro Star Trek novels. I’m not sure of the name now, it was either Deep Domain or From the Depths. In any case, it was an attempt to ape the pro-environmental popularity of the fourth movie by involving Our Heroes with a world that had an endangered and strangely whale-like species living in the oceans. It was, and I say this with a certain amount of awe, probably the single worst piece of fiction I have ever read. It begins with the premise that Spock, Captain Kirk’s bestest friend in the whole, wide universe, and Chekov, another good friend and valued member of his crew, have been kidnapped by eco-terrorists and disappeared while left on this world for a routine inspection-thingie. Naturally, the good captain rushes in to save them . . . and promptly gets completely caught up in trying to salvage the troubled relationship between the world’s leader (villain? heroine? Who the hell knows? The author certainly doesn’t!) and her estranged father. I could seriously write a book that’s longer than this book about what’s wrong with this book. It not only breaks most of my rules (not the Dancing Chicken Rule — they’d drown) but it breaks rules set by older, wiser authors than myself. (Remember — and this is REALLY ironic — [Anton] Chekhov’s Gun? The eco-terrorists force [Pavel] Chekov to sign a confession to being something vaguely sinister, but he cleverly uses a false middle name on the document, which is never produced and never mentioned again.) I’ll try to confine myself to my biggest complaint, however. So, big premise, Spock and Chekov missing. We see them in the hands of the eco-terrorists, in grave danger. Then they disappear and are not mentioned again by anyone, for something like 90 pages! They finally surface briefly as prisoners of the good/evil world leader chick, who threatens to torture them by simulated drowning until Spock tells her his alien biology makes him able to hold his breath for long periods, at which point she more or less says, “Oh . . . well . . . nevermind then . . . .” Then, about halfway through the book, they miraculously and without explanation survive a shipwreck and get beamed back aboard the Enterprise, where Kirk greets them with a “Hi, Spock. Where have you been?” And it’s not an insoucient, “Dr. Livingston, I presume” understated bit of banter used to cover deep emotion, either. It’s more of an absentminded, “oh, yeah. We were looking for you. Uh, tell me about it some other time. Right now I’ve got this World Leader Chick and her father in a room together and I’ve got to go give them a Good Stiff Talking To!” And the rest of the book is about them and their struggles with the Deep, Dark Secret that the oddly whale-like creatures are really sentient (which I take it they figured out by the oddly whale-like creatures flat refusing to read this book!) So, this is the “Hi, Spock. Where have you been?” Rule: The main story should be introduced at the beginning and carried through to the end.
The Penelo-pee-pee Rule — I said above that the Star Trek book I was dissing was the worst piece of fiction I’ve ever read. The worst piece of non-fiction was a supposed-true-haunting tale called Spindrift: Flotsam From a Psychic Sea. In Spindrift, the author tells, in histrionic tones liberally sprinkled with casually-dropped fragments of French, of her time living in a “haunted” brownstone in New York City, where people and animals associated with the building kept dying mysteriously. For example, there was at least one person who died mysteriously from terminal cancer, several extremely elderly residents who died mysteriously from being a hundred and six years old, and a stray dog they mysteriously found on the street in front of the house and mysteriously adopted that mysteriously died from being mysteriously infected with every canine disease known to veterinary science. The really mysterious death, though, was the tragic demise of their own, dear little elderly and extremly infirm frou-frou dog, which also mysteriously died when they mysteriously took it to the vet and had it mysteriously put down! In documenting this tragedy, the author noted that, when they went up the ramp to the vet, Penelope puddled. When they came out, the puddle was still there, but Penelope was gone. Was that all her life amounted to, the author agonized, dripping with pathos, “Penelo-pee-pee?” Shortly after the book went to print, the author herself mysteriously died. Some reports claimed she committed suicide, but personally I think her muse strangled her in self defense. The Penelo-pee-pee Rule: Don’t. Just don’t.
(Bit of irony here! I looked this book up on Amazon awhile back out of morbid curiousity and there was a single, rave review for it. The ironic bit is that the reviewer’s name was “Lori Ross”. That is what my family calls me but, I swear, it *wasn’t* me!)