There's a hell of a lot of variation out there and no set path to writing something that's guaranteed (a loaded word if there ever was one) to be any good. I read a great post by Cherie Priest the other day in which she halted work on a piece that had progressed to 30,000 words. That's a sizable chunk, folks, and I admire her courage to pull the plug and start anew. I think she does a fine job of illustrating the "why" and "how" of her decision there.
For me, it's a pretty simple formula: hang a rubber skeleton on the bathroom door.
A couple years back, Jeanne and I bought a bunch of Halloween supplies. I dork out big time for that particular holiday, so come September 28 or thereabouts, the house is filled with plastic bats and spiders and rats and little skull shaped candle holders. There's also a skeleton, we'll call him Gus, that I'd hung on the bathroom door from a little loop of elastic popping out of the top of his rubber skull. The closer I came to finishing the first draft of my first novel (86,000 words), the more he became an inspiration to me. When I got up to pace my way through a plot snag, he was there with that idiot grin. When I had to hit the can for a break...well, there was no missing him then.
That dude became my mascot.
I told myself that if I could lay out the skeleton, I'd come through and supply flesh in the second pass-through. It became my mantra, and when I saw that little sucker I was happy to get back to the word processor.
I never put him in the Halloween box, by the way. I moved him to the back bathroom where polite company doesn't have to see him. He prefers it that way.
And I've been paying a lot of attention to him lately. We're pert near done with the skeleton around these parts, ladies and gentlemen. I hope to be quaffing a celebratory cold'un come Saturday with the missus (been writing a lot of ranch lingo lately, don't you know it...) and then get geared up to start revisions next week.
My strategy will be the same. I look at three chapters at a time. I mark on the hard copy with a pen. I read my work someplace where I can be loud without drawing the attention of Low Men in Yellow Raincoats. I put the pages on an old clipboard I use and I mark the changes. I put 'em in the next morning, save three copies and hit another three chapters. I do this until I'm done, then let it sit and go back and read the whole damned book. Then, it's off to the agent. After I get her views on it, we do the whole danged dance all over again.
Yep, it takes some time. But at least that skeleton's there...
Oh, well--the wrap-ups I've been reading say I didn't miss anything.
But as much as I enjoyed Dog Soldiers (B-), the movie really suffered from some distracting horror cliches. Ok, we all see the embedded werewolves a mile away. That I can live with. Why they haven't made the transformation as quickly as their outdoor brethren is beyond me, but I can still accept it.
But after the British G.I.s whole up in the abandoned farmhouse (anyone see this setting before?), are we to believe that the three separate time we see them nailing flimsy pieces of wood over the windows is supposed to keep these ripped-ass lycanthropes out? I mean, these things look like Lou Ferrigno with bloody muzzles! They have the strength to punch through the steel roof of a Land Rover for goodness sakes, and these guys think nailing kindling over the windows is going to save their asses? And the boards were six inches apart!
Also, I'm sick of the "bravado death." You know--the guy fends off the attacking witches/zombies/sharks/goblins/republicans successfully and then mutters something gleefully boastful. "That'll teach you to mess with British G.I.s!" You know, something witty like that. And this guy is always near a door or window or next to the edge of the tank of sharks. We get this huge pregnant pause and then BAM!, the window explodes and the monster pulls the dumb-ass to his death.
Part of this is the proximity issue. If you just survived a shark attack, why are you resting with the top of your head on the ledge of the tank or six inches from the surf? Yes, you're tired. Yes, you've had quite a scare. But why not use that little bit of adrenaline coursing through your veins to move--I don't know--a foot away from the source of the attack?
There was a dilly of a bit of dialogue late in the movie when one of the embedded werewolves, who has helped these folks throughout the course of the film, finally decides she wants to eat them. Megan utters something to the effect of: "Most guys think girls are bitches. Well, I really am one! Especially around that time of the month!"
Wow. I mean, just wow. Neil Marshall hits us with a PMS joke and a gender blast all in one horrible little package.
All that said, it's a fun movie. It's definitely got its moments, not the least of which is its frightful opening sequence. Just go in knowing that this one trots out a lot of very tired content, but it does so lovingly. And stick around for the closing credits. Some good British humor there.
So let me open the forum. What are some of the things you've grown tired of over the years in the horror field?
Next week it's the novel and nothing else for me.
But in the last ten days, I've been reading a lot of what Thomas Monteleone would characterize as work from the Steaming Pile of Organs School of Literature. Like any guilty pleasure, the law of diminishing returns applies to stories in this vein, and I'm plumb spent.
To that end, I'd like something fun in the field of mainstream literature next. I like fast pacing and humor is a nice bonus, though far from essential. I want a GREAT climax/conclusion. I'd like something outside of the speculative realm.
I know it's not "fun" but I've been meaning to read Jodi Piccoult's 19 Minutes. I still need to get to Atomic Lobster, but I'm not in the mood for Serge Storms right now.
Help! Suggestions welcome!
I've been on a bit of a western kick lately, and I have to really applaud Simon Wincer's epic mini-series Lonesome Dove. I remember watching this as a twelve-year-old back in Colorado. My family and I gathered every night around the ol' electronic hearth to watch the story of Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call and their journey to Big Sky country in Montana.
The casting is excellent and Duvall gives one of his best turns as McCrae. Jones is good but he's hard pressed to match the presence and charisma that Duval brings to each of his scenes. The steady Chris Cooper shows up here and Robert Urich and Danny Glover hold up their ends of the bargain. We also get Anjelica Huston and Diane Lane in this fine story that rarely registers in the discussion of the best westerns of the last half-century.
Is it because it first aired on broadcast television? Maybe it's the size of the thing?
Hard to say, but I can't imagine the story working on any smaller a canvas. Wincer does an excellent job of creating pathos by showing mundane life in pastoral Texas. I think the slow build-up gives us clear insight into the grudging affection Call and McCrae share for each other.
There are some tremendous individual scenes in this film. I love the horse rustling clip and the image of that water moccasin attached to the young irishman's cheek has been burned into my brain all of these nineteen years since I first saw it.
3:10 to Yuma.
There. I put it where it belongs in terms of great westerns over the last couple of decades.
This weekend we get Vantage Point. It looks like a neat little thriller. Usually I go all in for stuff like this. I enjoy the whodunit aspect and I like films that play with technology and surveillance. That said, I don't know what it is but I just am not a fan of Sigourney Weaver. Can't say why, but she bugs me a little. Her and Annette Benning.
Her presence wouldn't preclude me from taking a look, but I doubt I'll see this one in the theaters anyway.
And looking TERRIBLE at the free-throw line.
It's funny, because his biggest antagonist in the league, Kobe Bryant, seems to get a little better at something every single year. This year his long-range shooting has been great.
But Shaq doesn't even improve upon the simplest thing, which is to work on the muscle-memory skills needed to make free-throws, to solidify his game.
For that reason, I can't say that Shaq is one of the top-five centers of all time. I wonder how Suns fans feel right now, because they were so excited to get The Diesel and now they have to watch him stagger up the court, commit out-of-shape fouls and miss free-throws.
I like Shaquille O'Neal as a sports personality. He's a good guy and an engaging interview. I just think he hasn't worked as hard as he could have to fully realize his athletic potential...
Etymology: French, from Middle French, kind, gender — more at gender
1 : a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content
When I start to think about where my work falls in the world of dark fiction, it gives me a bit of a headache. The reason that it makes me feel kind of like this is that agents and editors can see it so clearly, but I have such a hard time making the distinctions. I read pretty widely in my genre and I'm starting to branch out with what I write (to include a bit more science fiction and fantasy).
But what about the stuff that straddles a couple of genres? I've read that a lot of agents and editors prefer authors to avoid the "slash syndrome." You know: My novel is steampunk/bizarro/western romance heavily geared toward left-handed redheads.
But how would you draw a line between horror and supernatural suspense? Here's what I'm thinking.
- Indicator One: level, type and depiction of gore and violence. I think of a novel like Brian Keene's Ghoul as straight horror, while I see Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby as closer to supernatural suspense. Ghoul features a ghastly, rotting monster that rapes women with his monster equipment and plucks the heads of unassuming ten-year-old boys. The violence here is off the charts and features rape, decapitation and violence against children. Rosemary's Baby features a rape (unveiled in a surreal dream sequence) and a conspiracy to create the spawn of Satan. Neither are particularly uplifting premices and both are downright scary books. But the "off-camera" depiction of violence, to use a film phrase, in Levin's work creates a distinction between the two, I think.
- Indicator Two: What's at stake? The pacing of a supernatural suspense is, well, more suspenseful than in a piece like, say, Gerald's Game, by Stephen King. Gerald's Game and The Nightrunners, by Joe Lansdale, are a couple of good-old-fashioned ghost stories with horrific ghosts. This is not the Whoopi-Goldberg-dancing-with-Demi-Moore kind of ghost. These stories exist to glorify the haunting, whereas most works of supernatural suspense feature a character racing against time, fate or a specific nemesis to reach a suitable climax. I think King's Bag of Bones does a nice job of this as Mike Noonan has to put together the puzzle that is created by the ghost in order to save the small girl before she is victimized by the evil grandfather.
- Indicator Three: Romance. This is perhaps the greatest element used to differntiate the two genres. Koontz has made his career writing novels that feature a love interest at the heart of some preternatural mystery. A reader is more compelled toward the conclusion because of the love interest in lots of supernatural suspense stories, whereas the soul purpose of lots of horror stories is to induce a more physiological response. A response to terror on a gut level. An "ewwww---gross!" moment or two.
Ray Garton is a solid writer. I read "The Folks" and was shocked by the deformed products of incest that haunted that kid in the story. Flat-out gross, but a compelling read. I'm reading Scissors right now, and it's much tamer in terms of the imagery, but the pacing and romantic angle at the center of the story (Amelia's faith in Stuart and her willingness to help him) makes this SS, in my opinion. Both are worth your time, and I think they speak to my point here.
I hope this makes some sense. Thinking about genre can make your head spin...
Incidentally, Terry Dowling's collection of short stories Basic Black is pretty solid. There's some cross-genre magic in these stories with a serious literary bent. This collection was released from Cemetery Dance Publications and it's a very nice book. Come to think of it, I wonder who we have here at the Jacksonville Public Library that is ordering all of this fare from CD. This is the third signed edition I've come across, and the catalog lists over fifty titles from CD.
Additionally, a story I wrote was well received by an editor at a magazine I admire greatly and I was provided with another note of encouragement concerning the writing. Alas, the tale did not find a home, though I think he'll be an orphan for only a short while longer.
Try Three-Lobed Burning Eye; the "news" section indicates they need another story or two for the next issue.
And it's that haunting aspect that I always find fascinating. Levin plays with the notion that places can carry a certain psychic residue based on the things that happened there. It's a neat idea. I recall when Jeanne and I rented our first apartment, and we went to the Salvation Army to buy some furniture, pots and pans and the like. I remember buying a matching set of four black plates and wondering what meals had been eaten on them before. I wondered what happened in the chair we bought. But in this case, not only is the building--well, influential on its inhabitants, but its full of practicing Satanists. It's a double whammy for poor Rosemary.
Levin's intricate plotting keeps this sucker singing along and it's a truly disheartening journey to watch Rosemary Woodhouse blunder into the conspiracy against her and her baby. The book is excellent and Roman Polanski's film is a classic. If you haven't looked at this one, do so this weekend and check out Ruth Gordon's Oscar-winning turn there. Very creepy.
The Ducks get the Huskies tonight at Mac Court. Keep your wings crossed...
Tomorrow we'll chat about the esteemed (at least by me and Stephen King) Ira Levin.
I spent three years as an adjunct instructor of English. There was always bread on the table and we kept the lights on in those lean years but I never knew where my next classes would come from and I spent a lot of time in my car. I was all over the Northern Willamette Valley, teaching in Oregon City, Gresham, Wilsonville and McMinnville. My schedule was erratic but I always had time to pound away at a short story or work on one of the early attempts at a novel that are now relegated to the cold confines of the proverbial locked drawer (sometimes I hear them calling to me; that's when I turn up the volume on Pandora)...
But to be perfectly honest, I made it through those academic proving grounds because Jeanne was busting her butt at the Christie School. She was working ten hours every day with kids that had done things such as, in at least one case, attacked their parents with an axe. This was a secured, locked facility for disturbed teens and Jeanne gave those folks three good years of her life. Like I said, we weren't brunching on the French Riviera come holiday season, but we were very happy and we were positioning ourselves for the future. I drove an old Nissan and she drove an old Toyota. I paid $186.00 a month to BlueCross/BlueShield for health insurance (as a healthy, 25-year-old) because I didn't receive any through the state. Now that the salary is much better and the benefits are good, I look back on those days and wonder how we did it. And it all comes down to the fact that we were supporting each other and hadn't yet started a family.
This all leads me to number three on Scalzi's list. It generated a lot of discussion in the blogging community because some thought he was being too flippant about finding a partner. But I'm here to tell you, folks, that number three absoluteley has a place on that list. Finding a spouse that can help with the finances (and not deplete them) is critical to making a serious go at a writing career.
I read about all the things a writer must have in order to become successful. A writer must have determination, promotional savvy, talent and luck. And I think finding a supportive spouse, one that pulls a check--not one that waves the pom-poms, falls into that nebulous category of luck.
So let me ask you. Who makes it easier for you to write? Do you work at a job that gives you time to pound out prose? Or are you coming home at night, exhausted from the daily battles, and retiring to your walk-in closet to write while the kids are shrieking on the other side of the door?
That's some amazing stuff.
Which leads me to the question: How do you set about measuring your daily success?
I've been coming to the computer every day between 10:00 and 1:00. I don't set a word count or a page count, but I try to not leave the word processor without finishing a scene. I did over 2,000 words today, which came out to a little over nine pages. The words came easily enough in just a little over two hours. That leaves me here, quickly blogging about writing before heading over to do an hour on a short story I'm working on.
Every writer has his or her own approach, and as I've mentioned in this space before, I'm fascinated by how the work gets done. I usually devour those stories and interviews with the best-sellers that divulge their traits (did you know that Grisham usually writes only three months out of the year, in the fall? He says that he goes into the attic and works eight hours a day from a meticulous outline. Amazing...). And when I finish the scene I want to write on a given day, I usually knock off and start thinking about the next scene I want to create. I take a jog and let the details emerge as I'm huffing and puffing, and I'll usually give it some thought that night before I fall asleep.
So how do you measure success? Is it a hard word count? A page count? A sale? Let's chat a bit about it in the comments section...
Duma Key is a very fine novel. Like most of King's work, the scale of this story is pretty grand and it checks in at just over 600 pages. I read it in just a few days, and I knew I wouldn't get to my own writing until I slew the sucker, so I had a late night Monday (12:45 is late--I know, I'm getting crusty).
Duma Key is, at its heart, a story about hope and redemption. Edgar Freemantle, our protagonist and POV, is drawn exceedingly well. We come to thoroughly enjoy his company, and we root for him as he deals with a catastophic injury that results in the amputation of his right arm. As he begins to heal, he experiences phantom limb pain and the missing arm becomes a sort of divining rod for the creative bursts that a) help him find purpose and distraction in his recovery b) expose a dormant talent that brings joy to many who view his work and c) reveal the mystery that surrounds the deserted island he inhabits in the Gulf of Mexico.
King likes to use pictures as portals. He does it in It, Sundog and Rose Madder to excellent effect. And he gets that element pitch-perfect here as well, particularly in a scene revealing an affair between his ex-wife and his accountant. Some very fine imagery in these passages.
Characterization is a strength here. Wireman is sort of an Alan Pangborn on Jimmy Buffett time, and he's a great complementary character. Jack is perfect as the "aw-shucks" sidekick and I love Doctor Kaman. I even come to develop a little bit of sympathy for Pam, the "quitting birch" that divorces Edgar after his accident. One of my criticisms, though, is that after we lose the character of Elizabeth Eastlake, that's it for her. She's very much an integral part of the story, but there's nothing about Wireman and Edgar paying their respects to her. I half-expected her, in her childhood form, to appear as an apparition in the climax as Edgar, Jack and Wireman do battle with Perse. But she strokes out and we don't hear from her again.
It's a small criticism, but I thought she was given short-shrift a bit in the third act. I will also say that, while the climax works in building suspense, the timeline is too improbable for my liking. It takes them all damned day to go a few miles and stage the final show-down. Still, the last few pages are very satisfying as Edgar comes to term with his losses, and the dragging timeline is a small price to pay to see our heroes through.
The novel sings in the first two acts. King's prose voice here is beautiful. His use of simile and metaphor is razor sharp, with many eloquent comparisons. The setting is richly depicted and I think he captures the serenity and magnetism of the Gulf perfectly. I think he does for the landscape what Dorsey and Hiaasen and Barry do for the culture of Florida, and that's bring it to life with truth and authenticity.
The pacing and organization work well, as King employs a vignette structure to the storytelling. I like that King plays with writing mediums as well. His stories are fun to read (though I'm sure not to typeset) because of the varied scripts and fonts he uses to create realism. Here, he shows a series of e-mail exchanges, and it's a nice take on the epistolary form.
And finally, I'll also applaud the piece for the voice. King's a better writer in the first-person perspective, and that's high praise, as I feel it's a far riskier and more difficult prospect than working in the third person. Does Pam come off a bit more harshly in this one than Edgar? Yeah, she does. Do I think she was mis-characterized? Nope. I think poor Edgar got hosed on that deal, muchacho.
Overall grade is an 'A' and I can't wait to hear what's next from the man...
Juno is a very solid movie, and if it didn't try to be so cute it might even be a great one. Ellen Page can clearly act. She plays a well-adjusted and intelligent (if not annoyingly referential) pregnant teen. Diablo Cody's screenplay is sharp. The dialogue is fluid and the players seem to have a nice time on screen with each other. The piece moves well. All points in its favor.
But sometimes, it just tries too hard to proclaim its status as an indie. The little sketch graphics indicating the seasons are lame. Some of the plotting is burdened with cliches. And even the music (yes, I said it--the music) becomes tiresome after awhile. Some of it's catchy and I'm glad that films with this much cultural impetus provide exposure for many, many excellent artists that would otherwise not receive it, but you don't need to hit me over the head with one tortured-accoustic-overly-clever ditty after another. And it didn't help that some lady in front of me was singing along with all of them. Damn, yo!
That's not to say I need this. But every cut doesn't have to be a starving artist recording from his mom's basement.
It's a good movie, don't get me wrong. And T.K. Simmons is amazing. He steals every scene he's in. I'll give it a 'B' and move on.
Nothing worth looking at this weekend, but that's ok. I'm going fishing over near Tampa. Any tips on how to catch one of these? There are lots of recipes for preparing mermaid tail on the net, but surprisingly few on the types of bait I need to use...
Here's a trailer to get you geeked for later in the year. And ok, maybe Juno could have used this one (check out the spin-move at 3:15; I'll be wearing one of those jumpsuits all next week as I work on my ranch novel)...
But you want to know what I really love about days like today? I love it when the night rises and the insects begin to hum and the air cools. I can open every window in the house and get the fans going, and I think it's just about the most comfortable temperature a body can relax in.
That makes for a pleasant evening, but so does my time spent working with students on our understanding and appreciation of literature. Thankfully, I have the all the answers (seriously! after all of these years, why didn't anyone just ask?)...
So I suppose we're all doomed to debating the definition of literature in some form of Bill-Murray-Groundhog-Day-existential-hell until...well, forever. I've been following the discussion over at Galleycat concerning the distinction between literary and genre fiction with lots of interest. Lots of quality snark in that thread of posts.
And I've spent the last week designing an American Literature course here at the college and I think, in terms of the short fiction, we'll be straddling that line pretty evenly.
We're reading Bierce, Twain and Poe. We're reading King, Hornby and Lethem. Throw in some Cather and Carver. Add a dash of Dubus. Fold in equal measures Faulkner, O'Brien, Chopin and Chekhov and top with a little number by Cory Doctorow and you have...BAM! Literature, baby.
It's a little more difficult then that, of course. Editor Ron Hogan adds this snippet when discussing some of the prevailing (pretentious) attitudes that persist about popular fiction:
Which leads to a lot of discussion about how thrillers can so be real literature, how some genre writers work their way up to canonization while others don't, and backhanded compliments like the way P.D. James delivers "a characterization so rich and detailed that for long stretches you can forget you're reading a crime story in the first place."
This type of sentiment leads me to believe that it's content (what some lit. texts call "enduring questions") that governs the characterization as to what is literary (which carries the connotation of being serious, meaningful and artistic).
Come on, now. Have any of these guys ever read John D. MacDonald?
To my thinking, literature is the verbal expression of thought and action. It's the marriage of stirring language and compelling content. It has its own rhythm and cadence, and when you encounter it--well, you know it right away.
It exists in music. It's there in drama, poetry and all lengths of fiction. And it's up to the individual to make the distinction for himself or herself. These currents of taste change with time and experience, so it's an ongoing definition.
And I'm thankful for the opportunity over the next three months to go deeper into my own...
I try to stress to my students to relish their daily experiences, because it's in those moments (in the line at the grocery store, walking in the park, working in the yard) that we often find the seeds of creative writing. A literary critic I admire calls those little insights reception moments. They happen a couple of times each day, and I think the perceptive among us think closely about those little interactions. It's that contemplation that elevates life beyond mere novelty and into the realm of experience.
Just yesterday I noticed a Schwann's delivery man setting up a tripod and a camera at a local park. I thought about his life--about what it must be like to drive a delivery route while anticipating a lunch break that can be used to practice the art of photography. Then I wondered what types of things he's seen through that lens, which strange and potentially frightening images you can look at through that viewfinder.
Now I have an "in" for a short story I'm working on this week. These are the types of moments that drive authentic fiction.
Oh, and as a side note, I had the winner picked correctly yesterday but I whiffed on the score. I won a date of my choice with Jeanne. I think we'll be getting up early come Saturday and heading here. I'm hoping they sell mermaid jerky in the gift shop...
So Happy Super Bowl Sunday to you, wherever you'll be enjoying the ballgame. It's warm and sunny here in Florida. In fact, Jeanne and I visited the beach yesterday and caught a glimpse of a couple of signature mammals for this part of the country: dolphins and whales.
We visited Neptune Beach, where a pair of (possibly injured) White Whales were surfacing about eighty yards offshore. They were complemented by a full pod of playful dolphins, which could be seen leaping high out of the water. It was a neat sight.
My pick? I like the Giants in an upset, 38-35. That's right, I see a lot of fireworks in this one. I like the Giants D-line to make things sufficiently uncomfortable for Brady back there, but I imagine the running game and the dink-and-dunk game that killed the Jags will be there for them. Eli will play will, Plaxico will win the MVP and little-known Ahmad Bradshaw will make some important second-half runs to lead the G-men to the promised land.
Cactus-lime beers and various daiquiries--check
Velveeta/chili dip and tortilla chips--check
Florida gator tail--working on it!
Enjoy the game!
The writing has gone very well this week (I polished a short story to final draft status and submitted it for review at a great market and cranked out nineteen clean pages on my novel). The Super Bowl is on Sunday (banana daiquiries!). I have a nice bottle of Fume Blanc in the fridge and I'm going to start a couple of ribeyes marinating within the hour.
It's a very nice day.
Then I log onto my computer and find this story. You read about garbage like this and it's a punch in the kidneys. As much as I have some fundamental issues with the way our country has conducted our business in Iraq, I'm thankful that we're pouring our resources into pursuing al-Qaida. The bombings are horrific, but to remotely detonate weapons on developmentally disabled individuals represents a new low, and that photograph of the shoes of the victims is just surreal.