Dying Words: Editorial Ass

Here's how it should look:

“Why?” she howled. “Why would you sell her?”

The finances of beauty aren’t something you can readily explain to a five year old.

“Sweetheart, you need to consider how stabling her will impact our lives. She’s fubsy. You can’t say she’s not. And she won’t exuviate another coat. That’s what the veterinarian said, and you know how much a dragon coat is worth.”

“Dad, I don’t care! I don’t…” she started, but then her face went adobe red. She held her breath for a moment and then she let it go. “No! Nooo! She’s my friend. You can’t let Cynthia go! Not…not ever!”


I love my girl, but she might be a bit confused.

I run over 200 dragon on this tiny stretch of strata. But really, is it compossible for this aging beauty to live with all of the young fire-breathers?

Seriously. Give them time, they’d tear her apart.

Think about it. The jury’s really still out on ranching dragon. I’ve always thought it an olid conflagration, to speak the truth.

No, I’d like to take Cynthia into town and try to peddle her.

She’s been with us far too long to treat her like anything other than what she is: royalty.

We’ll hope to find a sire, and we’ll pray that she doesn’t feel bad about all of this.

I don’t consider myself a niddering idiot, but I fear that my periapt will not protect me from Cynthia.

Confession: God help me, but I needed the money.



Unfortunately, it took Elmore a little bit of time to put Swag up to running speed. It's both a Frank Ryan and an Ernest Stickley novel (frank and ernest...get it?), but it does neither any justice, and that's a sad deal.

Stick is a great character. He treads that line between loathsome and respectable so well. We sort of like him, but we can't ever truly get behind him. This novel really exposes Stick as a pragmatist. Ryan's kind of a jerk ass.

All of that said, I think Elmore wrote a batch of short stories and then threw them together and called it a novel. This thing takes 200 pages to get rolling, with most of the chapters reading like 'how-to' manuals on knocking over grocery stores.

It's a diversion. If you read it, don't expect a hell of a lot.

I say that with the greatest respect for one of my generation's best writers. Elmore is absolutely the man. His work is awesome, except for the times when it's not.

Here's a song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mULa8WxTa4


A Real Fine Drink...

Ok. So here's the recipe for a very productive creative week:

One part Neil Gaiman...

Add a shake of Tori Amos...

Write about a compelling issue...

Submit to one of the finest magazines publishing dark fiction...

This is my recipe, at least in this miniscule window of time. I can't say whether or not it's a tasty cocktail to the masses, but it looks fine from here.

Here's what I've noticed.

When editors like your stories, there's a recipe that went with it. There was music and literary influence and weather and personal shit. All of that came together. You poured it into a story, and that story was something great.

That sucker up there, by the way, is an ideal cocktail for me. Neil and Tori and Apex? Shoot, homie, that's all you had to say.

I'd love a couple of orders in the comments section, though...


Showing vs. Telling

It's funny, but I pay more and more attention to the ratio of dialogue to exposition in fiction as I navigate the submissions process. I've had some editors that I really admire offer enlightening advice on the topic. The bulk of the advice has been to go heavier on the dialogue.

I thought it was really interesting to look at this post. The Gremlin Editor over at Electric Spec makes some great points. I won't quibble with most of them. But that point number four gives me pause:

  • If there's no dialogue on the first page of the story, you better have a good reason.

I went through the literature anthology I use at the college. I selected the tales myself, and I'm pretty fond of them. Here's the ratio:

  • 3/17 include dialogue in the first ten paragraphs. Many don't have any at all (of course, they are written in the first person by the likes of Poe and Carver--confessional in nature)

I'm amazed at how little dialogue there is in Leonard's Swag. It's certainly one of the more exposition-heavy books that I've read by the noir master, and one of the slowest builds in his bibliography.

Now, I'm not saying that the Gremlin's advice above is off the mark. I spent some time as an editor at the Clackamas Literary Review in Oregon and I can sympathize. There comes a time, usually late at night and after reading nine male ennui stories in a row, when you really want the characters to speak to one another.

But don't let that old adage get in the way of your own creative process. I think sometimes a writer can put too much stock in that advice--to the detriment of the tale.

No, I'd say get the rough draft down and look at the characters' interactions as you re-write (point three is the best advice in the Gremlin's post, in my humble view). If they are dead on the page, the story likely is too. I find that I try to condense my "telling" and hone my "showing" through the revision process.



This post refers to the excellent film by Brad Anderson, advertised by the gallery poster on the left, and not the maniacal holiday jams you'll find here.

But, speaking of those jams, I'm actually thinking about forking over the dough this year to see those suckers work down at the Florida Theatre. Would that classify me as a huge dork? Well, prepare the rubber stamp, I guess.

First thing's first: Transsiberian is a really good movie. This story of murder, smuggling and human frailty, contained on a train, is both captivating and beautiful. It grabs the audience from the opening scene and slowly builds toward a satisfying and, dare I say it, thrilling conclusion. Yep, that's right. This is a true thriller. And an adult one at that.

It's made only 1.5 million at the American box office, which is a travesty, but that's also further testament to the enjoyable movie-going experience for this one. The theater is filled with adults! And they like movies! They can shut the hell up and turn their cell phones off for (gasp!) two full hours! That's right, folks. This one runs longer than eighty-two minutes. I guess Brad Anderson assumed we could sit still.

There aren't any jackasses talking through the movie here. No gaggle of screaming tween girls looking for a grudge zombie without a jaw to come tumbling out of the attic. No marijuana-smoke saturated high school boys loudly wondering why there aren't any Saw-like challenges for our protagonist to navigate before being dismembered in the final scene.

No, this is a quiet, contemplative audience that wants to watch a mystery that owes more to Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie than James Wan and Stephanie Meyer.

The direction is superb. Brad Anderson knows how to build tension. His framing is precise, creating a sense of claustrophobia with his use of close-ups and extreme close-ups. The awkward social fumbling of the Americans at the center of the story (played ably by Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) is accentuated by their close quarters in nearly every scene. Anderson, who did masterful work on films such as The Machinist (2004) and Session 9 (2001) is adept at coaching stirring performances and using the setting to complement strong writing.

And in terms of the setting, the cinematography here is excellent. A frequent metaphor in the film is the chugging train itself, barrelling toward a conclusion that we think we can foretell, but that is surprisingly refreshing in its novelty. Filmed in Lithuania, the forests, meadows and fields that surround this isolated set of railroad tracks lend the picture a real sense of foreboding.

I mean, you feel cold just watching this sucker.

No one plays the wide-eyed American tourist better than Woody Harrelson. The real treat here, though, is watching Harrelson's character transformation as he moves from choo-choo-train-loving yokel to practical survivor. A very nice turn by Harrelson.

Mortimer is believable. It's mostly her story, and she pulls it off pretty well. And Ben Kingsley? Shoot, that man is a treasure. He's a thing to behold here--filled with both menace and kindness and sporting a believable Russian accent to boot.

It's a story about temptation and patience--violence and chance. It's about falling off the wagon in more ways than one, and the consequences that often accompany the impulse to satsify a selfish urge.

I'll be heading to Lakewood Terrace tonight, interested to see if it delivers on the promise of the trailers in what looks like the best menacing neighbors yarn since Pacific Heights.

What are you folks looking at?


Literary Lineage and Closing Content

Man, back one day and already sleeping on the job! Slacker...

I wanted to write today about two things:
  • composing the third act

  • Bradbury, Matheson and King and their influence on speculative fiction

As I mentioned in Wednesday's post, I've had a productive summer in terms of reading. Lots of pretty good books in that bunch. But that said, I was disappointed with a couple of the endings. I think wrapping up a novel is the toughest part of the writing process. I also think that the majority of readers place the strongest emphasis for their overall impression of a book on whether or not the ending works.

Because writing is such a subjective artistic field (which one isn't, outside of American Idol pop?), I know not all of these suggestions will carry water. That's fine. But these are some of the things that I look for in an ending:

  • Redemption--I'm a sucker for a story that delivers on the promise of personal growth or character epiphany. Think of Johnny Marinville in King's Desparation or Costner's portrayal of Butch Haynes in the underrated A Perfect World;

  • A downer ending--I know that runs contrary to the note above, but both ends of the spectrum have their allure. I loved the dark conclusion of Willy Vlautin's Motel Life, largely because that was the way it had to end. Our protagonist lives; his tragically nihilistic brother dies--anonymous and shabby in a seedy motel. The conclusion captures the fatigue of their dim lives in a way that winning the lottery or getting the girl never could.

  • Framing--I like a circular narrative, particularly when the setting is an important symbol in the story. Lonesome Dove's final scenes take much of their emotional power from Woodrow Call's diligent stewardship of the leg-light Gus McCrae back to that titular dusty town in Texas. This fantastic western kicks off in Lonesome Dove, and despite the cross-continental cattle drive, it comes home in the finale.
  • An open ending--another contradiction. We don't need to go home if the story is best left open. I like the ending of The Road. I'd like to think the boy grows into a solid young man. I'd like to think he becomes a leader--a change agent in a world gone sour. More likely he finds himself here, but there's a sense of freedom in thinking about the options. I feel the same way about the conclusion of Spike Lee's 25th Hour, and I'm one of the (minority) defenders of King's conclusion to his Dark Tower saga.

On the other side, tread carefully in these areas:

  • Ghosts in the various machines. Stay away from time travel when it hasn't been developed in the plot. Roger that with multiple personalities.
  • Don't sacrifice the plot to a flimsy surprise ending. Surprises are great, when they work. But if you need to bring a plot development from extreme left field to coax an audience into dropping its collective jaw, then consider revision.

I'm reading Duel. The stories, for the most part, are tightly drawn. The majority of them trend toward science fiction. Bradbury wrote the foreword for the edition listed on the right of the blog there, and his influence is clear in much of Matheson's work.

It's clear that Matheson was taken with Sci-fi Ray. In terms of tone, pacing and content, stories like "Third from the Sun," "Return," and "F--" borrow heavily from The Martian Chronicles. I like Sci-fi Ray, but I'll admit that I like Weird Ray a little better.

Nasty Ray.

To draw the line between the two, read The October Country. That's a danged collection, friends.

The short story "Duel" has been the best so far. Matheson puts on a compositional clinic in blending the technical act of driving with the emotional exhaustion of hot pursuit. The story screams toward conclusion, and it ends with just that: a long, cathartic scream.

"Lover When You're Near Me" is a harrowing story of prolonged rape. Matheson's creation of a vindictive, obsessed female antagonist is haunting. In this case, Lover (an alien) uses telepathy to molest the human male supervisor of a mining outpost deep in space. The sense of dread here is palpable, and Matheson's depiction of the mental assault is reminiscent of King's work in Dreamcatcher.

That shouldn't come as any surprise. King has called Matheson the most important writer in his life. Both King and Matheson, however, owe more than a little to Bradbury. Matheson's "Shipshape Home" and King's "The House on Maple Street" borrow, again, from The Martian Chronicles.

Time and again, Ray's voice and tone and cutting edge storytelling show their imprint in all of us that have followed.

To my thinking, Ray's work has pretty much dictated the direction of speculative fiction for sixty years. I see his stuff in Gaiman. I see it in Lansdale. It's all over the map in our little corner of the literary universe.

And you know what? I'll take him. I'll put him up against all of the other giants any day. He has all of the charm of Twain, all of the linguistic beauty of Cather, all of the sturdy elegance of Hemingway.

Ray is the sun in this here solar system, pilgrim. Check out his work here.

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...