On Finding Inspiration

I'm teaching a creative writing course for the first time since I moved from Oregon to Florida. It strikes me as humorous that in the last two or three years I've learned more about the writing process than I ever could effectively articulate back in the first part of the decade, and yet I'm less equipped to discuss how to "make" a decent story. The more I write, the more I recognize that the process is simply organic, and any approach to segmentation (that incremental approach almost universally endemic to American higher education) likely leads to mental constipation.

I'm using Shaping the Story and Jeffrey Ford's The Drowned Life as texts. I've fashioned the course, as was my custom in Oregon, into what I hope will be a rigorous workshop. Write, read, revise...repeat. That said, I like to look at interesting stories for inspiration (hence The Drowned Life) and I like a clear discussion of narrative theory (Shaping the Story). We'll season our discussion with a few snippets from Stephen King's fine text On Writing.

There's a passage in On Writing in which King, pretty humorously, cites a number of stories that inspired him to write--not because they were great stories, but because they were so astoundingly poor that King found himself thinking Hell, I could do better than this!

Those moments of epiphany have been happening for me a lot lately, only mine have been the antithesis of what King is saying. Peter Beagle, Laird Barron and Jeff Ford are the kind of writers whose work I'd love to place a story next to, simply because their work leaves an echo. It leaves a bruise, in some cases. When I read these guys, I get anxious to get to the keyboard.

The same thing happened to me when I was a kid and I read C.S. Lewis. My mom gave me an old typewriter way back then, when we were living over on Scotland Road in Pueblo, Colorado. It had a mostly dry ribbon that, when I really got to banging on that sucker, would suddenly clinch up. I had to straighten that thing out over and over again, until it would look like I'd just left central booking when I was done working on a story. Those were the days of perfectionism, so the pages were always covered with whiteout. I was a little OCD that way.

And I absolutely adored The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That book really got to me; I internalized the plot and tried to capture the voice and I started my very own rip-off, only my kids found an enchanted chest with a set of stairs beneath the blankets.

The story was bad, but you couldn't have told me that. The story's quality simply didn't matter. When I was writing it, I felt the juices pumping. I felt the story, no matter how derivative (a word I probably won't know or understand until my fiftieth year in the world), was golden, and that I was born to give it life.

I mention this because I think we need to capture that sense of inspiration this week. It's all about possibility. We need to, as a group, get jazzed about building worlds. We'll do the theory and we'll read the stories; we'll study the structure and we'll work with postulates.

But more than anything, we just need to do justice to that age-old phrase: I have a story to tell you...


Occultation, by Laird Barron

Occultation is a downright frightening collection of short stories. It's not often that I get to write that, and I haven't read a collection that was this vibrantly unsettling since Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts.

Barron's prose style is crisp and keenly observational, guiding the reader through landscapes rich with horrific imagery. He introduces us to three-dimensional characters--some courageous and some filled with treachery, but always believable. He dabbles with form a little here, writing in the epistolary structure; his stories are effective in both the first and third person. My favorite stories in the collection are the longer "Mysterium Tremendum" and "The Broadsword," although the short "Occultation" just lingers with the reader long after the final word. That one is a genuine creeper.

"Mysterium Tremendum" is the alcohol-fueled tale of four youngish bull males tramping through the forests of Washington State in search of a fabled ruin. A common theme in a number of these stories is a fascination with the black arts and, in this case, the men have come into possession of one bad little book: the Black Guide. I enjoy stories steeped in the esoteric and, while I know very little of the occult, the plot details in Barron's stories feel authentic. Barron builds the tension expertly here through the thoughtful perceptions of Willem, an essayist who finds the book in an outdoors surplus shop. When the hikers come across the ruins in question, they pay a steep price for their bold acts of hubris.

It's also a story of loss--a story about the loss of personal identity and the disintegration of meaningful relationships. Barron's eye for mundane horror and his ability to turn a phrase gets under the skin. Consider this passage, as Willem confronts an apparition that has appeared in his living room:

"This is an idiotic imaginary conversation," I said. There wasn't anything imaginary, however, about the searing alcohol in my burps, or the fact my head was wobbling, nor the flutter-flutter of my heart. "Shoo, fly, shoo."

Tom didn't answer. The cherry of his cigarette dulled and blackened. A split second before his shape merged with the darkness, it changed. The room became cold. A woman said, There are frightful things. I couldn't tell where the whisper originated. I finally gathered the courage to switch on the lamp and I was alone.

The simplicity in the statement There are frightful things is the beauty of Barron's ability to unsettle. His stories are peppered with elegant and mundane phrases and observations that simply pucker the hair on the forearm.

"Occultation" is a lesson in narrative economy, a short tale that reminds me of William Friedkin's underrated film Bug. A couple is drinking tequila in a rundown hotel room in the desert, frightened by a shifting shadow that could be nothing more than a water stain on the wall across the room. Of course, it might be something else altogether...

"Catch Hell" is another yarn driven by an examination of the dark arts. In this case, an obsessed anthropologist and his wife, unable to conceive a second child, visit an infamous ruin in Washington State with the hopes of getting pregnant. Oh, and how it works!

"Strappado" is a tale of sacrifice and thrill seeking, an examination of performance art and esoteric secret societies. Makes me thankful I'm not a hipster...

"The Broadsword" is a fantastic haunted house story. Man but there is some malevolence dripping from the pages of that story! If you enjoyed Stephen King's "1408," then you'll want to read this one...

"The Forest" is a rich examination of humanity's frailty and the power of personal connection. It's a great way to start a journey that only picks up steam as it progresses.

This is a great collection of stories--original, sophisticated, literate and damned scary. Highly recommended, particularly as we indulge in the first hours of the fall...



Inception (2010), the closest thing we've had to a summer blockbuster, is a pretty good film. My wife and I had our anniversary dinner on Friday and I mentioned to the waitress that we were heading out to see the film.

"It's good. I've seen it twice," she responded. I'm always interested in stories that create this sort of passionate audience response.

And to tell you the truth, I'd like to watch it again soon as well--just not for ten clams.

Inception is stunning visually. It's well played and I love Chris Nolan's approach to the feel of the film. The overbearing strings in the score dictate the tempo and set the tone. This is a heavy film, and one I hope will improve with time (I watched The Matrix the other day and it was just laughable).

Leo DiCaprio is an excellent actor. From the underrated The Beach to What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Basketball Diaries and Blood Diamond and Gangs of New York and even Shutter Island, he's proven to be an excellent chameleon. It's nice to see some strong actors taking on speculative films, that's for sure.

But I wasn't even sure what Ellen Page's role was in this other than to be the decoder for the audience. "Hey, we'll cast Juno in the film and we can have Arthur and Cobb explain everything to her! The audience won't even see how lazy we are?"

Honestly, the film could have left more to the imagination. I like the subtle approach to the technology itself--two little pin pricks on the wrist and a little case with a button in the middle. Bam! I like that they didn't go CSI on us and show us what it was like to be a molecule barrelling through the bloodstream and into the brain of the sleeping mind. I'm glad the world-building was simple and didn't go all Pandora on us. That simplistic repetition of the various homes the Cobbs had lived in was, I think, a heart-breaking touch.

But I also have to say that I agree with many of the critical comments on the longish running time of this one. I think it would have been better had it wrapped up in two hours. Less explanation, more narrative...

Still, it's an intriguing and ambitious bit of film making that was worth a trip to the theater. I'd give it a B- with the caveat that I think I might like it much better after another viewing.

Next up in the queu will be Devil. I hear all the noise about MNS as a storyteller, but I'm just not buying it. I like a lot of his stuff and I want to give this one a shot...


The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists

I'm swimming in so much rich literature at the moment that I'm a bit overwhelmed. Peter S. Beagle's short story "Sleight of Hand" is a work of beauty. The story's postulate engages our concepts of sacrifice; it deals in spirituality and investigates the depths of human connection. Beagle's economy in phrasing--his ability to characterize and advance plot and really keep the tale moving--is a fine illustration of narrative craftsmanship. The story's plot is beyond melancholy, focusing on the kind of everyday tragedy that tears into our lives without prejudice, leaving in its wake a whole new way of being.

And at its heart, it asks a very simple question: What would you give for the ones you love?

Also, I'd like to include a link to an essay I've found both instructive and inspirational. Ursula K. Le Guin is one of my favorite writers, and her essay
"The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists" speaks to me from so many different angles...


Moon and "Dust Country"

Moon (2009), by British director Duncan Jones, is an excellent science fiction film. Jones's film is, I imagine, the kind of piece that improves with time. I want to give it another look in a month or so, and see how it moves me. There were subtleties in character and with the visuals that I'd like to look at again. A mystery that delves into the human psyche while simultaneously skewering corporate exploitation, this film recently won a Hugo award as the best science fiction film of last year.

Sam Rockwell does a fine job in both of his roles, playing Sam Bell, a haggard astronaut isolated from his young wife and daughter on the far side of the moon while he works the harvest for Lunar Corporation, the Earth's leading supplier of "clean" energy (thing is, you can't call it clean when you have blood on your hands). Rockwell is funny in spots (the radioactive tampon line is hilarious), perfectly incredulous in others, and wonderful throughout. I think we'll be seeing him in pictures for a long time, and that is a very good thing.

I can't get too much into the film without spoiling it, so I'll just say that it's a steady, engaging picture that builds tension and deals with some interesting issues about what the future might look like. "We're not programmed, Gerty. We're people," Sam Bell says in the film's third act. It's that sentiment that stays with the audience long after the credits are finished.

Also, for those of you who wanted to read my alien-abduction tale "Dust Country" in hardcopy, it's now available in an alien-themed collection of Residential Aliens. Lyn Perry does an excellent job with that publication, and I'm thankful to him for reprinting this little horror tale, set in the badlands of Southern Oregon, in RA #3. Beware the dusty stranger!


Ultimate Anthology: "Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros"

Peter S. Beagle, who wrote an informative introduction to The Secret History of Fantasy (at the right of your screen), is a fantasy writer's fantasy writer. His marriage of beautiful prose with intriguing premises ultimately leads to some of the best fiction I've looked at in the last decade. Beagle's story "Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros" is a representative tale, and one of the most optimistic short stories I've encountered in many years.

The eponymous professor provides a great character study. After a semi-reluctant chaperoning of his niece to the local zoo, the incredulous rationalist is forced to confront a life with a philosophy-debating rhino who thinks himself a unicorn. As his relationship with the rhino (who travels to the university to listen to the professor's lectures) grows, we get a chance to see how shared passion and companionship make what seems like an empty life more round and vibrant.

The story, masterfully paced, sprawls efficiently across a span of decades. When the professor loses his one true friend at the university, the reader's heart breaks for the old man. When his career arches brilliantly into twilight, it is his horned friend who is there to guide him into the next phase of being.

This story is beautiful with a capital "B," and it's one whose impact on the reader will be felt for a very long time. It's a story that demands introspection, and asks us to reconsider what it means to be a part of a friendship.

Anthology to Date:
"The Small Assassin" ~ Ray Bradbury
"Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros" ~ Peter S. Beagle


Redstone Science Fiction and "Salt of the Earth"

While only four issues have been published since its inception, Redstone Science Fiction has quickly appointed itself as destination reading (disclaimer, they published a tale of mine earlier this year). I love the mixture of hard science interviews coupled with keen articles and interviews on the speculative field. I've really enjoyed the fiction, which has been diverse, literate and engrossing. It hasn't taken Redstone long to put itself up there with Apex, Chi-zine (when they are rolling) and Clarkesworld as some of my favorite reads. And my favorite story they've published so far is Mary Robinette Kowal's "Salt of the Earth."

Kowal's story is one of loss and revenge, and the responsibilities parents carry for their children. I know that last part should be self evident, but there's a whole population of parents that just don't see it that way.

Here, salt is precious--the most precious substance on New Gaea. Kowal deftly develops this central narrative element without exhausting it (a hard feat indeed when you consider the story's climax). To be sure, the tear guards and salties are nice touches.

And while I like the story's setting--it's vivid and well rendered--this is a narrative whose heart lies in the characterization. It's Theo and his self-centered demeanor and obvious disdain for his autistic son in "Salt of the Earth" that makes us invested in Melia's cool, detached revenge. This story is heart-breaking in some parts and cold-blooded in others. Very nice piece...

I re-read Stephen King's "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" today and I was struck by just how much I really enjoy his mundane fantasy tales, particularly the ones he sets in rural Maine and Oregon and Florida. The man, whether yarning on a plague of frogs in "Rainy Season" or describing the youth-restoring qualities of a shortcut through the badlands of another world, as is the case in "Shortcut," seems to really bring the goods in those cases. It's voice and its characterization, and the result is very often delightful.

Sorry about the tangent...

The long and short of it is (and I know many of you who might drop by here are students at the college who also dabble in a little bit of fiction writing) that Redstone Science Fiction is bringing quality scientific theory and fantastic fiction to readers on a monthly basis. Pop by for the fiction, but make sure you stay for the interviews. You never know when the next idea might kindle and ignite into flame...


Kick Ass

I think I've discovered my super power: I'm ambivalent about superhero movies and television shows, and about comic books in general. I've tried--goodness knows I have. I watched a half dozen episodes of Heroes, which was simultaneously dull and sprawling, which made it nothing more than an enormous bore. I've read a bunch of graphic novels in the last year, including Locke and Key and The Stand, and I've taken in just about all of the films on DVD, from the ridiculous Watchmen to the tolerable subject of this review (Kick Ass is a C+ film).
This story trots out the old geek as superhero cliche. Aaron Johnson's Kick Ass (aka David Lizewski) makes one face throughout the film. He's so milquetoast in this thing that the only time we see any personality in him is when he puts on the mask and mugs for the mirror. Toby McGuire's Peter Parker at least had some depth to him (those, by the way, are the best adaptations in the genre, hands down). Johnson's inability to carry the show or make us care, coupled with the syrup-slow pacing of this thing, almost led me to turn it off. I did turn off Watchmen, only to return a few days later and regret finishing that turd.
Lizewski has the requisite pair of slack-jawed geek friends, one of whom mumbles things like "fucking retard" (why do people drop these r-bombs? totally distasteful) to show us that he's edgy and would be popular if only the rest of his high school classmates would just get to know him.
Nic Cage (Big Daddy) and Chloe Moretz (Hit Girl) are good, and I wish this was more their film. Cage plays the driven single father, hell-bent on avenging his wife's suicide. Hit Girl is the lovable, impossibly deadly scamp that dispatches whole gangs of thugs with her knives and guns and feet. Moretz carries every scene she's in--half for the spectacle of such a pint-sized badass, but also for her comic timing. You'll love it when she says, "I'm just fucking with you daddy!"
Another problem is the villain here (spoiler coming). He takes a bazooka rocket to the gut, which is appropriate for the over-the-top tone of this one, but that's about the only redeemable thing about Mark Strong's turn as Frank D'Amico. He's a drug dealer and a baddie, but he's totally one note and runs around shouting things like, "Playtime's over kid," while he repeatedly punches a ten-year-old girl in the face. I have no problem with the violence--it's the story, after all--but the writing is pretty brutal in spots.
I guess it's me. Fans of this genre will think me weak; they'll wonder if I was bitten by a radioactive wussy spider or they'll go to their greatest trump card: He just doesn't get it.
That's cool. I don't want to get it.
I'm going to look at The Last Exorcism this week. It's about a religious fraud who goes around taking money to perform his fake exorcisms. He's a phony, but he's about to collide with something more sinister than his usual parlor tricks. I like the premise, and I prefer the content. Give me the plausible any time...

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...