Happy Halloween!

Radio address broadcast on KKID 1430 A.M., Jacksonville, Florida, October 31, 2007 at 12:34 p.m.:

Tonight's the night, folks. The zombie revolution starts right here in northern Duval County (and you said we never made the news) when the sun goes down over Florida this evening. Officials from the World Health Organization have predicted a global epidemic of senseless hunger and unchecked decay.

The city of Jacksonville is converting a number of hurricane shelters into ZPZs, or Zombie Preparedness Zones.

Citizens have been advised to remain indoors after sundown, but you know how Floridians respond to evacuation warnings. If Star Wormwood enters our atmosphere, as astronomers predict, at 5:39 p.m.EST and parents don't advise their children to be wary of the lurching, stumbling undead, a catastrophe of epic proportions awaits us when the sun comes up in the morning.

Our advice? Lay in some provisions and throw on a couple of creature features folks. And make sure you don't sit next to any windows...


The Willows

I want to link to a neat market called The Willows and applaud the editors for a great concept. A great many in this field cut their teeth on Victorian ghost stories and early American weird fiction and this is a case where the market drives the content and not the other way around.

I spent a couple of years in graduate school looking at the work of Poe, Lovecraft, Collins, Le Fanu, Broughton, Blackwood, Bierce and the like. The writing is superb; the stories are genuinely creepy.

Take a look at The Willows and what they're publishing before you saddle up to your next short story. You might surprise yourself.


A Note on Writing Resources

Short post today, as we're nearing the end of the term at the college and things are piling up. I've been working with a group of creative writers that have really taken to the process of solid self-editing. They've gotten to know (really learn) their copies of the Writer's Harbrace Handbook: Brief Third Edition, so when issues come up they've been able to address them. This makes any teacher happy, because the majority of the questions (2/3 maybe?) that students ask are about technical aspects of mechanics, grammar and formatting. The answers are out there, and the best students find them and make the corrections.

But what about the resources for the writer just starting out? I highly recommend Stephen King's On Writing, a conversational, engaging and encouraging tome that is filled with biographical information and also some excellent practical advice on topics such as dialogue attribution, use of adverbs and pacing.

E.B. White and William Stunk Jr.'s indispensable The Elements of Style is a must-have for any fledgling writer. Read it cover to back before you set out to type the first line of your short story. The work will thank you for it.

And I like the links to Chuck Paluhniuk's tips and Richard Laymon's rules. Both are in the Writer's Links section of my website www.danielwpowell.com.

I've heard Donald Maas' text Writing the Break-out Novel is solid. And your local library will have a wall of books devoted to the subject, including How to Write a Novel for Dummies.

Any I'm missing? Please list in the comments section...


NCAA Football Saturday

Ah, Florida. The drunken little gem of the south. Today marks the 75th addition of the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party here in Jacksonville. There's a crisp note of fall on the normally warm air and the people are happy and incoherent. The grocery store parking lot was populated by blissful, middle-aged men in shorts filling coolers with Coors Light and Corona. The roads are flush with cars staking their team allegiance (I passed a Jeep from Georgia with what looked like a life-sized rubber gator covered in fake blood on the hood).

I was even passed on the road by a middle-aged man in a Kia Sedona minivan drinking a tall-boy of malt liquor (Steele Reserve 211--eeeewwww!) at 12:30 p.m. What a town.

I hit the gym today and busted out some mileage on the treadmill. I have to say it was a great session, as I was able to pass a mental kidney stone I've had over the last month on outlining the final segments of my WIP. That should make for some strong writing in the upcoming weeks now that I'm confident of where to take this project.

The Oregon Ducks get the men of Troy toady at home in the biggest game in the history of the program. It's the first time in six years that USC isn't favored. It's also the first time in the history of Autzen Stadium that a pair of teams in the top ten tangle. I can't wait! I'm starting the queso dip at 3:00 and making ribs for dinner. We have the World Series tonight, as well as the CAL/ASU game at 10:00.

Saturdays in the fall are really something else. If you're reading this post in Jacksonville today, be careful and take care of yourself and those around you. We can't afford a repeat of last year's hostilities in the downtown area...


Reviews--Hurricane Punch, After Things Fell Apart

I'm working on Walter Mosley's Blonde Faith. Another (and potentially the last) Easy Rawlins mystery. Review next week.

I finished Tim Dorsey's ninth Serge Storms romp Hurricane Punch this week. I recommend it to fans of the series--Serge and Coleman are in top murderous form--but I'm starting to hunger for something else from the talented Dorsey. I have to compliment him on his style. He's a phenomenal humor writer and Hurricane Punch is packed with comedic treatments of common Florida chicanery (hurricane looters, punks in low-riders with throbbing bass music, price gougers). The pacing is crisp (forty + chapters) and the narrative is very cinematic.

But I'd love to see Dorsey write a stand-alone thriller or a straight crime story. I think there's a lot of territory he can cover, but the Serge series is taking up most of his energy. This isn't the best in the series (Hammerhead Ranch Motel, Florida Roadkill and Triggerfish Twist are my favorites), and I hate to admit it but I'm growing a bit weary of Serge and Coleman. Dorsey's got the writing chops, but I've had (until Atomic Lobster, I suppose) it with the hysterics.

Ron Goulart's Things Fell Apart is a nice little diversion. Published in the late '70s, it's a short, satirical look at a dystopic future in which the U.S. government has been dissolved and California is governed by territorial warlords. It's not unlike The Warriors in that respect. It's the story of a private detective (Jim Haley) trailing a group of feminist assassins. His investigation takes him to the Nixon Institute, a kind of retirment facility for aging rock stars, San Rafael, a sin-filled city run by the Amateur Mafia (no Italians allowed), and Vienna West, a sprawling psychiatirc facility. Goulart's cynical sense of humor and sharp dialogue make this a fun read. Recommended for fans of science fiction.

Mike Bellotti will be the featured guest today on Rome is Burning on ESPN and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead appears in theaters today. With a great cast (love Albert Finney!) and an interesting story I'm intrigued, but there's not much out there in terms of publicity.

Enjoy the weekend.


Environmental Lecture, Psycho and Beowulf

Special thanks are due to Neil Armingeon and the office of the St. Johns Riverkeeper for presenting on the topic of water conservation in Northeast Florida. Neil gave a succinct, highly topical discussion on the need to address our water management policies now and to remain vigilant into the future as our population continues to increase.

I want to also thank the faculty, staff and community members that made it out to this important discussion. These are both individual and community issues we need to negotiate together, and I was impressed by the questions and spirit in the room.

We looked at Psycho this week in our film class, and I think it left a solid impression on those who hadn't seen it previously. I do really enjoy this film. Hitchcock does a fine job of establishing tone early, employing a creepy approach to the credits accompanied by Bernard Herrman's unsettling score. The early portion of the film is a taut little game of cat and mouse as Marion Crane (the fantastic Janet Leigh) endeavors to make a new life for herself in California's Inland Empire. Hitchcock paces the opening dozen scenes nicely before transitioning to the second act at the motel. Here we get the conflicted, sad Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins nailed it and few performances have been so closely scrutinized in the canon of American film as his) and the imposing house on the hill.

The shower scene. The swamp out behind the hotel. The murder of Arbogast and the tension Hitchcok creates when Lila goes looking after her sister. All of it's very well done.

Oh, and there's a pretty creative little scene that takes place in the basement at the arc of the
story's climax.

It's a classic and completely appropriate for this time of the year.

What do you make of this
project? I like video games as much as the next guy, but do you think this style of animation will hit home with audiences? It's like a cross between Shrek and Tomb Raider with an A-list cast, a solid director, a classic myth at its center and a big budget. It certainly will be interesting to see the reaction in November.

Let me know your thoughts on Psycho, what your expectations are for Beowulf and whether or not you'll pay nine rocks to see this


Social Networking, Shelfari and Book Promotion...

Galleycat has an interesting post today containing a link from a writer at the New York Observer. Jesse Wigman writes about some of the nefarious practices these sites use to drum up hits. He accidentally fired off a mass e-mailing to every person he'd corresponded with over the last three years via his g-mail account.

I don't know where you guys come out on this, but let me begin by saying I still don't have a cell phone. I mention that only to illustrate my fairly stubborn attitudes concerning "progress" as the concept applies to communication. I've never wanted a cell phone because I rarely want to be contacted. I don't like to see them in the hands of distracted drivers. I hate it when jerks talk on them in front of me in line at the grocery store without even acknowledging the clerk waiting on them. I hate them in the movies. I hate them in the classroom. I think they look foolish when they're part of Joe-Businessman's "uniform." You know, the little clip-on belt holder and the ridiculous Wesley Snipes circa-Demolition Man head piece and accessory package.

They have some very positive attributes. Emergency response services have improved. They aid motorists stuck in precarious situations. They keep parents and their children in closer contact.

But text-messaging and obnoxious ring tones and the ubiquitous grainy photograph that accompanies any major breaking news story are all annoying side-effects of this "progress."

I've resisted the urge to open up a MySpace and/or Facebook page and I'm not going to sign up for Fan-U, regardless of how high I'd like to rank the Oregon Ducks in a national football poll. I think this blogging, which is really just an extension of the journalling I do in a ratty old composition book, is about the extent of how far I want to extend myself in terms of communication.

My homies know how to reach me on the land line, and I can check the voice mail when it suits me.

The fine author
J.A. Konrath swears by the power of social networking sites to impact the exposure of your writing. And I'm not saying I'll never open up a MySpace page. I also know this is my second curmudgeonly post in the last week. But take a moment to read Wigman's piece and let me know in the comments section:

Is all of this "progress" in the field of communication good for our society?


Frightening Places and the Maguszine

I blogged earlier about the mystique of the closet, that alluring portal between light and dark that exists in the minds of children and...frisky adults. Another place that gives me the heebie jeebies is the abandoned shed. These structures litter the landscape of rural Florida. They list hard to the side, broken windows and padlocked doors incongruously inviting you to peek inside while cautioning you to stay away.

We had a little utility shed in the backyard of our home on Scotland Road in Pueblo, Colorado. I used to dork around in there when I was a kid--until the hornet's nest incident. I was playing with what I thought was a piece of corn still in the husk (my parents had a huge urban garden back then). I peeled back the paper-thin shell and a hornet the size of a robin flew out of there. It bounced off the walls and ceiling, dive-bombing me in its efforts to find blue sky. I screamed to wake the dead and since that day I've had an irrational fear of these sheds.

In Eastern Oregon (and in Florida) there are many ghost towns filled with these old utility buildings. In the event that you find some time on your hands and you want to shoot some pictures, head for the hills and seek them out. They fulfill a valuable purpose in October--to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up just a little in the cool fall air.

Here's another market for your stories, the Maguszine. My short story "Dinner at Shorty's" will appear in the Halloween issue of Samsara: The Magazine of Suffering shortly.


Writing Process--Exposition

Richard Barsam has written a very fine text for explaining the process of film criticism (Looking at Movies). One of the interesting points he makes early in the text concerns narrative theory. He posits the idea that we should have (for a ninety-minute film) the foundation of the film's exposition out of the way in the first ten minutes. It's a unique idea that speaks to the notion of showing versus telling. And it's a pretty interesting idea to apply to the process of writing, as art in each medium is classified as a "text."

Clearly, this rule depends on the genre in which you work. I read about a dozen mainstream "literary" novels each year, and I'm interested in how the storytelling differs from what you'll find in a lot of genre work. There's a much slower expository build-up in the literary writing. In terms of speculative fiction (and I understand I'm making a broad generalization), we often find the action early and prior to the exposition. I think the recipe indicates that you hook the reader (especially in horror fiction) with an "unspeakable act" and then trace back to develop the setting, characterization and back story.

So I'm interested. What do you think of Barsam's "ten-minute" rule? Does it hold for much of the stuff you look at? What about exposition in your writing--story first or detail first?


30 Days of Night and Movie Jerks

Ok, prepare yourself for a curmudgeonly rant. I went to 30 Days of Night last evening and was not impressed by the current crop of movie fans. Jeanne and I posted up in a nice quiet corner, hoping for a frightening experience that would match the quality of fellow graphic novel adaptations 300 and Sin City.

That, we didn't get. Too bad. More to come on the picture itself.

Then a pack of punk-ass dudes (smelly ones) closed in on us like vamps on an innocent child. They sat behind us and talked the whole time. Whenever there was a decapitation (and there are more than a few), the most eloquent among them would shout, "Shit!" for all of the theater's benefit.

Dude, we get it. You cuss. You're so edgy, man! You know the 's' word and (gasp) you'll use it in public. Loudly! Boy, the rules of society mean nothing to you! I wish I could be so free!

Then, when there was a brief marijuana joke in the film this group broke up laughing like a bunch of fifth graders making fart noises with their armpits.

Dudes, you know about marijuana? You're all so edgy, man! I can't believe I was in the presence of such genuine rebels.

Three rows back of this bunch of yahoos was a dumb-ass kid that broke out laughing with (literally) every new scene. Stuff that wasn't even remotely humorous sent this kid into gales of uncontrollable chortling. He laughed at the movie's only decent performance (Ben Foster, who has playing the dirty guy with bad teeth down to a science). It was damned eerie, let me tell you.

I hate to say it, but I think I'm going to only hit matinees from here on out. I used to give people the benefit of the doubt. I used to make up excuses to explain away their poor sense of social propriety. He probably has ADHD. Maybe she's surgically connected to that cell-phone. Maybe that's the only volume (screeching) at which he can speak.

No more.

These half-wits utterly compromise the movie-going experience. I used to toss candy. If you buzz the tower, they usually simmer down. I'm thinking I'll bring Whoppers on my next trip to the movies.

Oh, and 30 Days of Night? C+. There wasn't enough character development and Josh Hartnett is guilty of extreme over-acting. It could have expanded on where the vampires came from. It could have shown how they became such monsters. It could have even shown Billy's damned family, for heaven's sake. But don't ask me to care about his family and his dire situation (the murdering bastard--sorry about the spoiler) when I never see Peggy or the girls. The writing is so filled with cliches that I wanted to break out laughing when Stella tries to make nice with Evan via walkie-talkies in the show's final act. The final scene was ok and I liked the fly-over shot of things unravelling when the vamps go nuts. Two scenes. That's it.

And hell, I might have liked it more if it hadn't been for the smelly frat-group camped out behind me. Oh, and by the way, I know I was a punk-ass kid at one time. Maybe I still am (at thirty? I hope not). But I never fouled the sanctity of the movie house.

I mean, sheesh...


October Filmfest...Phantasm

To begin, I'd like to thank all of the students, faculty and community members that attended Dr. Gail Gibson's lecture last evening "Global Warming: Its Impact on My Future." Dr. Gibson gave an illuminating and clear presentation on the topic of climate change. He also provided our students with some practical advice on reading between the lines in their analysis of media content concerning the politicized messages surrounding global warming (photos lacking context, flat-out incorrect information and disingenuous interpretation of data). Dr. Gibson did an excellent job, and he will be presenting again at Deerwood in the spring term. The St. Johns Riverkeeper will give a short presentation on taking action to clean Northeast Florida's greatest environmental asset in room B1206 next Wednesday at 7:00 P.M.

In the last week I've looked at some Halloween classics. I love Arachnaphobia. While not a traditional frightfest, the blend of comedy, suspense and good-natured chills (love the emaciated corpses with their mouths frozen wide in shock) is a throwback to more innocent times in the field of speculative film. It's not chocked full of special effects. It's not a score-driven, repetitive slasher film.

It's just a neat little picture that succeeds in spreading the October chill. Highly recommended.

I also looked at Don Coscarelli's Phantasm (1979). What can be said about Phantasm. You either love it or you hate it. I sort of liked it. Alien undertakers shrinking corpses to send home as midget slaves to their mother planet. Strange metallic guard orbs whizzing through the air and sucking thick streams of blood from the foreheads of the unsuspecting. Terrifically bad dialogue and a really disjointed plot. Unfortunately, a very cliched conclusion (alas, it was all a dream).

Still, the music, the pacing and some hard to describe measure of menace that Coscarelli brings to the film make this a worthy viewing experience. My wife hated it (F). I thought it was pretty neat (B-).

Coscarelli has made some interesting films. He did The Beastmaster (tune into TBS--it's probably on as we speak). He also did the excellent Bubba Ho-tep.

These are a pair of worthwhile films to take a look at in this, the season when, as Angus Scrimm says in the foreword to Phantasm, you look into the shadows and the Tall Man looks back at you.

Writing Process--Chapter Outlines

In my discussion on writing the synopsis on Monday, I was reminded of the value that a strong chapter outline can have for the marketing of your novel. I met Tim Dorsey at last year's First Coast Writer's Festival and he mentioned that a large part of his process was outlining scenes on note cards and arranging them on a cork board. By putting the scenes in close proximity to each other, he could arrange them chronologically, linearly--any way that would lead to the best fluidity of the plot. I've not ever tried this, but I think this weekend I'll conduct my own method of chapter outlining.

I'm at a crucial juncture in my WIP. When I reached the (roughly) midpoint of my first novel, I found it a tremendous aid to do two things:

1) Print out all of my chapters and take stock of their size and content. I checked for repetition and looked for balance in my scenes.

2) I also sketched the synopses for chapters sixteen through thirty-five. This changed numerous times as I worked through the revisions with Bernadette and Gretchen, but it helped me immensely in plotting the course for finishing the rough draft and typing "The End."

Like I said, I'm just about there so it's time to put together another partial outline. I like the freedom of allowing a story to germinate and blossom spontaneously. But there seems to come a time (and the story dictates that--it's an organic thing) when the piece calls out for structure and shaping.

I'd love to hear about your various approaches to plotting and organization. The process of storytelling is, to me, almost as interesting as the story itself.

The Moonlit Road and Withersin

A couple of ghoulish links to occupy your Tuesday in the October Country. I really have enjoyed The Moonlit Road. Top-notch storytelling and macabre original photos combine with a well-designed site to make this a must-read each month for me. Lots of great folklore on this site...

Withersin is another online market to place your speculative fiction...


Writing the Synopsis

There will come a day when your agent asks for a synopsis. You'll quickly acquiesce to his or her wishes, confident in your abilities to dash off a clear, engaging, coherent summary of your work and how it will find its way to the center of an editor, and later an audience's, heart. You've written the query letter and that worked. You've written the novel and that worked. But believe me, when this day comes it'll go down as a memorable one because no activity in writing is as painful or difficult as writing the synopsis.

You might as well be giving a kidney. Or birth to a human baby.

Maybe that's a little hyperbolic.

But it's truly a difficult task. And the really maddening thing about the process is the variance of importance that editors apply to this document. Some put a lot of emphasis on it. They want a short, succinct, crisply written selling tool to decide whether they'll read the manuscript. Others read the sample pages, then consult the synopsis to see if the plot makes sense. And some don't look at it at all.

What is the synopsis? It's your novel in a nutshell. And it's a marketing tool, so it's very important to devote your strongest efforts to its composition. Your agent will use it in the pitch. Your editor might use it to promote the book.

The rules on formatting and length are vague. I've heard of some writers putting together ten double-spaced pages. That's an awful long synopsis, and I don't know that busy editors will be turned on by reading that much prose. After posing questions at conferences, consulting writers here at the college and conducting research on the web, I'd say the optimal length would check in at two to four pages.

Everything else remains about the same. Double space the writing. Include a header with the title of the project, your last name, the lable "synopsis" (you'll be amazed how many random documents go into the full pitch packet, so keep everything as clear as possible) and the page number. Use 1" margins and a readable font (Courier New or Times New Roman) between 10-12 in type-size.

In terms of content, this is where you need to summon the movie voice-over guy in the back of your brain. You'll also want to call on that lady that writes the taglines for the film posters.

Because it's all about selling now.

The synopsis is the written trailer for your novel. It needs a hook, and it needs to grab the reader in the opening phrase. Ask yourself the question: What is my novel about? Then answer it, using an active voice, and set up your plot. Your opening paragraphs should outline the content and set up the story. My second paragraph sets up the reach of the oral tradition in Oregon:

It’s a legend recounted by teenagers on the beach, their faces glowing in the light of driftwood bonfires while the relentless surf pounds across tide pools behind them. Hundreds of years old, it’s a narrative that lives in shadow—often transmitted in the dying hours of the night.

Then I pull the trigger on the tagline:

But behind every legend lies a foundation based upon truth.

Kind of corny, I admit, but it sets the stage for a supernatural creature feature. I can then readily launch into the historic aspects of my novel and sprinkle in characterization. Every major character needs to be discussed, including a short (one sentence) description that includes their flaws, defining characteristics and/or strengths.

Write the synopsis chronologically and focus on the parts of the plot that best express the conflict. You don't need (nor should you include) every last detail. The art, and the maddening frustration, of the synopsis is deciding how much to show. Leave out minor characters. Don't describe every scene. Focus on the story. And in fact, read it out loud to yourself twenty times before you decide if it works. It should flow as easily for you as if you were sitting around the fire, telling it to your friends on the beach.

As you approach the conclusion, it's again time to talk a little bit about yourself and the novel. Mention whether it's a stand-alone project or part of a series. Talk about the novel's key selling points (I spoke about the popularity of urban legends and storytelling, the historic aspects of the novel and its identity as a Northwestern Gothic). Mention some of the writers whose work it would share shelf space with and, if it's appropriate, where you would like to see yourself as a writer. I concluded with:

Horror writers tend to mind their own gardens. Bentley Little writes extensively about the dark side of the Southwest. Brian Keene reveals the shadows of everyday life in Maryland.
And Stephen King’s Maine is as conceptually real and vivid in the minds of his readers as the seat they are sitting in when they read his words on the page. Wendigo humbly represents the first in a line of stories that will do the same for the state of Oregon.

This is a long post--sorry about that. And it's a cursory look at the process, not meant to stand as a "hard and fast" set of guidelines. But it's a damned tough shake, this synopsis business. I'd recommend you get started if you're done with the first draft. This is the type of secondary composition--the writing about your writing--that will take lots of drafting and patience to get right.

Oregon Ducks #10 in the BCS Poll. That is a travesty...


Can Oregon Win the National Championship?

You know what? The Oregon Ducks still can win the National Championship.

With the LSU Tigers losing today to the Kentucky Wildcats, the Ducks still have a chance. The winner of the PAC-10 will get the berth in the national championship game. And though the SEC is tough, they can only put one through to the final game.

If the Ducks keep handling their business (they won today over WSU 53-07), then they can put their name right there. We still have USC, UW and ASU on our schedule. But we have a very good team. I think when push comes to shove, it will be the winner of the PAC-10 and the winner of the SEC.

We lost a pair of great players today (with Colvin out for the year), but we have a ton of depth.

I'm watching the Beavers play the Bears. Let's all root for the Beavers to play some great football...


Strange Horizons and Lori Selke

Short post, but I'll link to another market in Strange Horizons. Sometimes you read a story and you really wish you'd written it. I had that experience with Lori Selke's haunting short "Dead. Nude. Girls."

It's a well-written treat for the holiday season.

Also, do you guys have any recommendations on novels? I'm headed to B & N tonight...

Off to the word processor...


The Lost Boys

Remember when the Coreys ruled the silver screen? Those were the golden years, I'll tell you. Before this happened...

They had featured roles in the cult classic, The Lost Boys. How's this for a tagline?

Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It's fun to be a vampire.

Joel Schumacher (Flatliners, 1990) did a nice job with building suspense, making the setting (love the boardwalk here) a character and keeping the pace up. Filled with raucous vamps on choppers (who are led by an excellent Kiefer Sutherland) and the Frog brothers' methods of vampire extermination, this one is a guilty pleasure for me come the Halloween season.

We get 30 Days of Night next week, but prior to that I need to stop by the Santa Monica pier and commune with the Emerson brothers, then it's off to the Titty Twister for a couple of drinks with George and the boys.

This week we get another epic period piece (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) with what looks like an intriguing story and a solid cast. Cate Blanchette gives routinely excellent performances. I think she can stand up to Clive Owen more than capably in this one. Based on the trailers, it promises a little bit of everything--action and adventure, grand staging, melodrama, war and religion. Lots of potential here.

Do we have our first offering for the fall awards season? Please comment, if you take a look at it...


David Nickle, Kurt Dinan and Dark Fiction

Most markets include a set of no-nos in the their guidelines. You've seen the lists.

No gratuitous sex or mutilation.
No violence against children.
No sexual assault unless its central to the story's plot.
No gratuitous torture/abuse of animals.

And don't get me wrong, I agree. If I ever undertake the immense task of editing a speculative fiction magazine, I'd be damn sure to assert my preferences in taste and content as I sifted through the submissions.

And yes, those suckers on the list above would make my guidelines.

That said, I turn on CNN today and see another high school shooting. Last night's Law & Order featured another teacher/student sex scandal (with a neat twist, I'll add). You can't go a day here in Florida without hearing of another sickening sexual scandal (a panhandle prosecutor recently hung himself in his cell after being jailed for allegedly flying to Michigan to have sex with a five-year-old).

I only mention this because I read a pair of excellent short stories last week. David Nickle's "The Mayor Will Make A Brief Statement and Then Take Questions" was published in #33 of Chiaroscuro. Outside of the great title, Nickle executes a tight experiment with form and pens a short, unsettling story.

And it involves the death of a child.

Granted, Nickle handles this artistically. This one's a chiller, not a gross-out piece, and there is never any explicit violence portrayed against Nicholas. It goes without saying that this doesn't commit an offense against the provisions above, but it does touch on the death of a child.

Then there's Kurt Dinan's award-winning story from Chiaroscuro #34. "Longtime Gone" is substantially more explicit (though I won't say it's any darker than Nickle's story--just different) than the story cited above. It deals with kidnapping, and I really like the pacing and organization. I think the narrator's descent into madness and obsession is deftly handled, and I like the psychological musings at the preface of each snippet of prose. They communicate a sense of numb, helpless grasping that must accompany such a devastating loss.

Great story, but another that deals with violence against children.

I don't stray into this territory. I'm not saying I won't at some point, but the soil in my garden right now isn't set up to support a decent harvest there. Maybe after we have kids, but even then I'm a bit skeptical.

Scary things happen to kids. I know it. I just don't write about it.

I read Brian Keene's Ghoul this summer and I was a bit turned off when a central pubescent character was sexually assaulted by his drunken mother, only to have a monster pluck his head in the third act and throw it at the kid's best friend. Sheesh.

So let me ask you guys. What do you write? What's off limits for you as a reader? Comments welcome below...


Internet Speculative Fiction Database and 30 Days of Night

A quick post today on a pair of topics central to the discussion of speculative fiction. First, try this link for an extensive database on the field of speculative fiction. I was really impressed with the functionality of the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. The bibliographies were thorough and the service links to both fan and artist sites.

Another one for my expanding favorites section (to go with writing blogs, research leads, school links, author pages...man!).

I'm also curious to hear from those of you who read graphic novels. I thought both Sin City and 300 had much to recommend them based on their cinematic merits. I'm not a connoisseur of graphic novels, but I'm getting there (I will incorporate a creepy graphic version of Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" in my spring literature course) and I'd love to hear from the die-hards. Do you have high hopes for 30 Days of Night? What is it about the reading experience (and I know I need to get King's Secretary of Dreams) that draws you to graphic novels?

Characterization and Down in the Cellar

I think one of the most important aspects of creating memorable characters is working on the quirks and intricacies that make human experience such a delightful grab-bag. I'm reading a couple of novels right now that score big points in this category.

Hurricane Punch, by Tim Dorsey, stars Serge Storms, a character whose insatiable thirst for all things Florida is really an endearing trait. But I love how Dorsey introduces us to Serge. In every novel (hell, in every new scene) Serge is indulging his love of Florida and applying it to the project of the day (whether he's writing a screenplay, conducting a tour of dive bars or killing a group of frat boys that littered in the Sunshine State). Dorsey's a gifted writer, and he's done a great job of keeping character first as he sculpts his prose.

Ron Goulart's After Things Fell Apart is an interesting read. A 189-page post-apocalyptic tale described as "a rousing satire on tomorrow," this one includes a long list of secondary players whose quirks are outlined in snippets of prose that don't advance the plot but comment on character.

Consider this example:

He laughed, reaching to the bib pocket of his overalls. "I plumb forgot, Jim, you're on the other side. Law and order. I'll tell you for true, Jim, that there Private I outfit of yours would look a lot sharper if you had started it off on a more selective basis." He slid a harmonica out of his pocket and blew into it once.

That final detail, short and sweet, does a great job of coloring our view of old-timer Clem Furrsey.

So it's a simple point based on a simple observation: clear and memorable characterization is a product of incorporating regular, accessible behaviors.

That's not to say that there's not a place for sweeping, extended paragraphs of character exposition. There is. But I think as writers (and more specifically, close readers), we often overlook the art in the simplest descriptions that say so much in a short space.

Here's another market for those of you looking to place your short fiction: Down in the Cellar.


Jon Stewart

I am thankful for this man.

Take a look at this exchange.

The Road

There aren't many superlatives left to describe Cormac McCarthy's The Road that haven't already been written, but I'll put my oar in anyway.

It's the finest, most memorable book I've read in the last couple of years.

McCarthy's book works on every level. It's an effective allegory for the isolation that pervades urban life. It's a very taut thriller at its core. It's horrifying in its revelation of the depravity that extends from such hopeless circumstances. It's very well written--a "literary" novel that excels in sustaining a rhythm and cadence in its short, elegant sentences and stripped-down approach to punctuation.

And I was thoroughly moved by the relationship between the father and the son. Honest. Unflinching. Crushing in the novel's final act.

Consider this excerpt to get a sense of the prose:

With the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Barren, silent, godless. He thought the month was October but he wasnt sure. He hadn't kept a calendar for years. They were moving south. There'd be no surviving another winter here.

When it was light enough to use the binoculars he glassed the valley below. Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop. He studied what he could see. The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of color. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke. He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again. Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.

It's a sad, beautiful story. It will find a place in many college literature courses from here to eternity, and I think that's a great place for it. Because these students--I worked with a half dozen last night in a rhetoric course--they are feeling some of the isolation and sorrow that is communicated in The Road. We were discussing the status of the American thinker last evening, and they weren't very hopeful for their countrymen. They cited offerings in the media (edutainment was a favorite topic of concern), a shifting, uncertain economy and changing technologies as sources of stress and barriers to growth.

The Road is about love. It's about perseverance. It's about hope.

And it's an artistic life-ring at a time when the waters are really rising.


Criteria for Film Discussion

Despite the news (false, apparently) that he's not allowing ABC to use his "thumbs-up/thumbs-down" designation, Roger Ebert's reviews have been published with a series of stars lately. This story (with a really, well...sad picture of Roger) outlines the battle over the catch-phrase that launched a thousand stinkers.

To that end, I'd love to open up a discussion on how we should assign value to a film.

Stars are so '80s.

Popcorn tubs are lame.

Tomatoes are so '90s.

The thumbs up and down thing is way too general to offer any real advice. And I don't want to get sued.

So we can draft our own scale. Words are fine, but again they're pretty vague (bad, poor, good, excellent). Blah (picture curmedgeon shaking fist)!

A numerical scale(1-4; 1-5?) is fine, but we need to come up with an appropriate unit of measurement.

It would have to be something that can be applied to both good and bad films, though. Saying The Godfather earned five Brittany Crotch Shots is a far cry from awarding one BCS to Showgirls.

See what I mean?

I'm also cool with the partial designation. I mean, Brittany's Crossroads probably gets a BCS and a 1/2 (I'm guessing--haven't seen it).

So let me know what you think in the comments section. I'll ponder the subject over the weekend and hopefully we'll have some suggestions to discuss.

In the meantime, I hope that Michael Clayton earns at least three Kool-Aid attacks .

Environmental Lecture Series

I'd like to thank the students, faculty and staff that attended our discussion on conservation last night at the Deerwood Center. Also, special thanks are due to Tom Larson and Janet Stanko for clearly and passionately delivering the message of stewardship that is at the heart of the Sierra Club.

The lecture series has been well received and was written up in the Florida Times-Union here.

Please join us in room B1206 on October 17, when we discuss the economic and social impacts of global warming. The lecture begins at 7:00 p.m. at the Deerwood Center, on the corner of Southside Boulevard and Old Baymeadows Road.


The Shining

How delightful to find ourselves in the month of October! This is my favorite month in my favorite season. I love the transition from summer's glory into the long sleep of winter. I love it when the leaves flee their branches and scatter over the brown grass and the smell of woodsmoke floats on the air and the streetlights are still on when you leave for work in the morning.

It's a fun month, filled with celebrations of life and death and everything in between. It's a time for masquerades and transformations--not all of them pleasant. It's filled with stories of the fantastic and macabre and even the staunchest skeptics among us can't resist the urge to indulge in a chill or two when the moon is high and yellow.

I also love it because the needle of our collective film compass naturally swings to horror at this time of the year. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone has a favorite.

I'm going to attempt to look at thirty-one movies in the genre this month. That's pretty ambitious, so we'll see if I can get there. But I knocked out Land of the Dead yesterday and at least for now, my resolve is high. I have my favorites, and I'll share them down the road a stretch.

But I'd really love to hear about the films you guys love. Which movies kept you up at night? Which made you shudder when you turned out the lights? Which keep you from letting your hand hang off the side of the bed, fearful of what might be waiting beneath the box-spring?

Please comment on your favorites and your viewing experiences and we'll have us a little chat by the fireside on the best Halloween horror films in the field.

I'll share first--The Shining. Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece drives home the horror of repetition. From the creepy music in the opening credits (coupled with the fly-away shot of the Torrances' car on that winding mountain pass) to the monotone of Danny's big wheel in the hotel's empty corridors--Kubrick's film deftly depicts a slow descent into madness. Shelly Duvall's wide-eyed (but charismatic) performance is an effective counterweight to Jack Nicholson's smoldering intensity as he slides into lunacy.

The bloody elevator scene. The decomposition/seduction scene. The iconic
"little pigs" scene.
The chilling setting and excellent supporting performance by Scatman Crothers (picture above).

It all adds up to a really fine film (though one of the most widely debated as well). Agree or disagree?


Environmental Lecture and Carolyn See's Snarky Review

I just wanted to post some information on the second in our lecture series at the Deerwood Center here in Jacksonville for this Wednesday. Tom Larson, the chair of the Sierra Club's Northeast Florida chapter, will join us to discuss urban sprawl, wildlife and land conservation and direct political action at 7:00 p.m. in room B1204. Please stop by to share your vision for Northeast Florida as we continue to shape our communities and manage our growth responsibly.

Speaking of responsibility, what do you guys make of this review? Carolyn See takes a look at Porochista Khakpour's debut novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects and lets her have it. The review is an open letter to the author and See mentions at the conclusion of the first paragraph that she "had actual trouble" reading the novel. She proceeds to highlight redundant verb choice, plot inaccuracies and trite allusions both biblical and contextual (Middle Eastern mythology).

It goes without saying that writers need thick skin to succeed in this business. I know that when I attend workshops, it's important to be honest but tactful in doling out criticism. I also view it as a skill to be able to take constructive criticism and put it to good use. Take what benefits the writing and put those things aside that don't. And so I suppose that my curiosity is with See's tone and her tact. Is this review over the top?

I think it is. I think See's judgments have merit, but the problem is with the delivery. It comes across as pompous and patronizing. She attacks the veracity of the blurbs that Khakpour collected and the advance praise for her debut piece, which does come across as a bit of a Red Herring.

It sounds like Khakpour's debut novel (an important point to consider--not a pass, just an important consideration) has some flaws. Maybe there are some things she can do better as she gets back to the word processor. But I don't think any writer needs this tone attached to what should be an exercise in constructive criticism.

A friend at the college let me know about this story, but the consistently perceptive galleycat also ran a spot on it. You can follow the link to Khakpour's blog from galleycat to see her reaction to the drubbing. If you get a chance to read the review, please let me know what you think in the comments section below.

And as an aside to this discussion, I tend to follow the King/MacDonald school of thought on dialogue attribution. See finds it tiring that Khakpour uses the verb "snapped" seventeen times after the mid-point of the novel. Like King/MacDonald, I'm a simple "said" kind of guy and I find that I edit for these things in the final stages of manuscript polishing.

You Know When It's Good

If you spend any real time at the word processor, you understand that sometimes the writing flows and you just know in your heart and in you...