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Frost/Nixon January 19, 2009

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Note: I’m quickly learning just how difficult it is to mainly a blog solely on the topic of writing (especially since so much of the process of writing is, let’s face it, esoteric). That in mind, I’m expanding the scope of the blog ever so slightly to include other things like reviews of movies, etc. Consider it an experiment…

And now on to…

Frost/Nixon is Ron Howard’s best film to date (at least of the ones I’ve seen — I admit to taking a pass on stuff like The Da Vinci Code and The Missing). Howard is certainly competent, but his movies generally don’t fire me with passion at all. I admire his willingness to move from genre to genre, but in that process, I believe that he’s failed to develop a distinctive voice. Frost/Nixon took a step or toward making me believe that Howard could transcend simple by-the-numbers film-making. A lot of what makes the movie successful boils down to the excellent writing by Peter Morgan and the terrific lead performances by Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, but there’s definitely some craft on display in the directing as well. The camera work is good, and the pacing is almost thriller-like; there’s a tension that bleeds through the whole piece that keeps you engaged and wondering what’s going to happen next. For the first time since maybe Splash or Apollo 13, Ron Howard had me well and truly “on the hook”.

Also, one can’t help but draw parallels between this bad president of old and a bad president of more recent vintage. That gives the film a certain timeliness that contributes to its success.

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Storywatch 01.18.09 January 19, 2009

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For an explanation of just what in the hell this post is all about, go here.

Other People’s Stories:

  • “Night Meeting” by Ray Bradbury. I didn’t realize immediately that this story was from The Martian Chronicles, but then I went on ahead and read it since I wanted to see how well it would stand on its own. It stands very well, thank you.
  • “The Call of Cthulhu” by H.P. Lovecraft. A remarkably imaginative piece representing a new kind of horror fiction (for the time). Fresh, inventive, and scary.
  • “Fever Dream” by Ray Bradbury. Whoops. I hadn’t intended on reading two Bradburys this time out, but it’s all good. This one’s a compact and very, very creepy horror tale; quite different from the Martian Tale of a few days back.
  • “Orpheus with Clay Feet” by Philip K. Dick. A bit of a gimmick story, but fun nonetheless. Again, I’m struck by how Dick reminds me of Bradbury — if Bradbury were to take a lot of acid.
  • “Hinterlands” by William Gibson. Surprisingly enough, this is a straight science fiction story complete with spaceships and an unknowable alien culture. Smart and beautifully written.

My Stories:

I continue to work on story number three and “story” is becoming less and less of an accurate term for it — this one’s headed into novella territory. My method is to write everything longhand first. I usually do a couple of drafts before ever hitting the computer, in fact. My incomplete first draft is at about twenty five pages and I still have a fair chunk of the primary conflict to write. I am determined to finish this one although I don’t know whether or not I’ll post it here since it’s so long. Hell, maybe I’ll do it in serial form. Wouldn’t that be Dickensian of me?

I’ve got two stories posted to date:

“Awake” and

“Morningstar”

The Books:

Advice From Cory Doctorow January 13, 2009

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Here’s some advice I read earlier today from writer/columnist Cory Doctorow on avoiding distraction so that you can get your daily writing done. I’m sharing it with you now because I agree with absolutely everything he has to say. Check him out…

Cory’s Advice.

I must confess that I haven’t read any of Doctorow’s books yet, but I do have one in my Kindle so, hopefully, I’ll get to that soon.

Storywatch 01.10.09 January 10, 2009

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For an explanation of just what in the hell this post is all about, go here.

Other People’s Stories:

  • “”Tedford and the Megalodon” by Jim Shepard. When I first discovered the two McSweeney’s collections edited by Michael Chabon, I became very excited. In his introductions to those collections, Chabon says that his goal is return the short story back to its plot-fueled, genre-embracing roots — to free it from the navel-gazing “moment of truth” story that it’s devolved into. When I read that I said (yes, aloud) “Preach on, brother!”. Sadly, the stories I’ve read so far don’t live up to the promise of the mission statement. In fact, I thought “Megalodon” was pretty much a navel-gazing moment of truth story. Sadly, the reviews on Amazon indicate that the collections on the whole are a missed opportunity. That’s too damn bad.
  • “Lusus Naturae” by Margaret Atwood. Another McSweeney’s entry and much better than “Tedford and the Megalodon”, but I’m still not sure that it’s the sort of thing Chabon was promising in his intro.
  • “The Cut-glass Bowl” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Beautifully structured, impeccably well-written, and very sad. Scott continues to impress.
  • “A Natural History of the Dead” by Ernest Hemingway. Again, a strange story from Hemingway — if the term ‘story’ even applies here. It reads — rather dryly — like a newspaper account, and the narrator disappears about halfway through. We’re left with very little character-wise to hold onto. There are some absolutely fascinating (if morbid) anecdotes interspersed, however.
  • “Closing Time” by Neil Gaiman. A peculiar (sort-of) ghost story that has an apparently unnecessary framing device and doesn’t end particularly well. Has my affection for Gaiman in the past been misplaced?

My Stories:

My third story has hit a few snags. First of all, I’ve far exceeded the intended length (I’m at about 3,000 words and counting), and I’m not all together sure what to do with the middle (though I do have the beginning and end written). I’m not concerned about the length (I’d rather have a finished story that’s too long than an unfinished story that’s just the right length), but I am somewhat concerned about my sagging middle.

The sagging middle of my story, that is.

I’ve got two stories posted to date:

“Awake” and

“Morningstar”

The Books:

Storywatch 01.05.09 January 6, 2009

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For an explanation of just what in the hell this post is all about, go here.

Other People’s Stories:

  • “One Hour” by Dashiell Hammett. (One of the Continental Op stories.) It’s fun that Hammett’s only recurring character (of which I’m aware) is never really identified by name (the stories are told in the first person). If all of them are like this and you read one after the other, you’d probably get bored quickly, but taken one at time, I’d assume they’re a lot of fun.
  • “The Wedding Gig” by Stephen King. A bit too folksy, a bit too Blue Collar, but also damned entertaining. I guess those are the things that define King, really — he’s a little bit, I dunno… simple, but you just can’t help having a good time.
  • “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by J.D. Salinger. A peculiar little story. I’m wondering if it works on its own or if you need some grounding in his Glass Family series to get the full impact. Since I read them all years ago, it’s hard for me to say.
  • “Rattle of Bones” by Robert E. Howard. (One of his Solomon Kane series.) Howard’s muscular prose is in full effect, but this story isn’t one of his best by a wide margin. By the numbers. unfortunately.
  • “O Ye of Little Faith” by Harlan Ellison. Tremendously bleak and not altogether satisfying narratively (it’s another Harlan’s-got-a-chip-on-his-shoulder story), but, damn, Ellison can write.

My Stories:

I’ve got two stories posted to date:

“Awake” and

“Morningstar”

I’m working on a third, hashing out the plot and the tone.

The Books:

“Morningstar” — Flash Fiction Piece #2 January 3, 2009

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Here is the second of my Flash Fiction experiments. Obviously, I went a little overboard with the length this time (it’s something like 1800 words as opposed to 850 like the last one).

And, just so we’re clear, I’m not passing off any of these stories as be-all-end-alls. My goal at this point is to finish as many of these stories as possible and, after a period of time, find that I am happy enough with some of them to evaluate them for re-writes.

Anyway, hope you enjoy…

Morningstar:

I’d spent the morning canvassing West Hollywood – talking to bartenders, beat cops, and some friends of Lilith’s who lived on the border to Beverly Hills. At eleven a.m. sharp, a black sedan pulled up beside me and a brutish voice said, “Get in”. Actually, I’d expected them sooner.

Two hours later, they dumped me at Union Station downtown. Their car was still moving and I rolled to a stop in the gutter – tired, wet, and badly beaten. From out of nowhere, a long, well-manicured hand slid into my bleary-eyed view. I took it and it helped me out of the street and onto the sidewalk. Rance (the owner of the hand) was dumbstruck by sudden appearance. “How’d you know I was here? I was gonna call you.”

I bent my spine back until it cracked and this made my new companion wince. “They’ve been following you too. Actually, they were tickled that you were already at the train station. They said the two of us could fuck off together. Maybe share a sandwich on the train.”

“Charming. Hey, you look like hell.”

There it was: Rance’s penetrating observational gift. “It’s been a rough morning. I spent most of the last hour with my head submerged in a toilet bowl. Forcibly, before you ask.”

“It looks like your nose is broken.”

“Yeah, something about me sticking it where it doesn’t belong. These guys’ve obviously seen too many gangster movies.”

We started walking toward the station, and I was drawing some disdainful stares. A cop near the entrance was minding our business a little too closely for my tastes.

“What’d you find out before you got pinched?” Rance asked, clearly eager to get to his own findings.

“Nothing useful. I traced Lilith’s movements on Friday night; got a picture of her state of mind. People that knew her said she wasn’t herself. Her behavior was erratic; she was scared. No one saw her more than eight hours before her body was found. At least no one honest.”

Rance smiled a smile full of mean little teeth. “Looks like I’m a better Sam Spade Junior than you.” He removed a tiny manila envelope from his jacket pocket and handed it to me. “Maybe I’m the one that should’ve gotten the beating.”

“The day’s still young.” I opened the envelope and dropped a silver key into my palm.

“Goes to a locker,” Rance said. “A locker in there.” He pointed toward Union Station and seemed about to bust with pride.

“Handy. Where did it come from?”

Some of Rance’s enthusiasm melted away, and his voice dropped to a more sympathetic register. “Lilith’s stomach. The autopsy. We had a man on the inside.”

“Don’t we always? So, you’re telling me Lilith ate this key before she was killed?”

He nodded once.

I held the key up so that I could see it more clearly. Etched into it was the number six-sixty-six. The locker number and Lilith’s idea of a joke.

Forty minutes later, Rance and I stepped out of cab in front of an old office building in Silverlake. “R. Evermeyer, Esq.,” said the shingle. “Hang out here,” I told Rance before going in. “Keep those beady little eyes peeled.”

Evermeyer was fat, apparently late forties (although it can be hard to tell with his type), and he smelled of old cheese. His office was unkempt – he obviously couldn’t afford a secretary. “Sit down,” he said. “I expected I would see you as soon as I heard the news. I would’ve thought you’d be here sooner.”

“Rough morning.”

“So I see. Can I offer you scotch? A cigarette?”

“Don’t drink, don’t smoke,” I said.

He looked at me for a moment and then clicked his tongue. “That surprises me. I guess I assumed you’d be just riddled with vices.”

“Don’t believe everything you read.” I sat down and, when he was down himself, I went point blank right out of the gate. “You know me apparently – at least by reputation – but I don’t know you. I’m not here to chat; I’m here for information. I got your business card from a locker in Union Station. Any idea how it got there, Mr. Evermeyer?”

“Lilith put it there, I would expect.”

I didn’t return his ironic smile. “More specificity, please.”

He nodded. “I met Lilith the first time in thirty-four – during one of her fabled Lost Weekends. I won’t lie to you: I coveted her immediately and, not being one to observe the Commandments too closely, I pursued her. I knew who she was and, by extension, I knew of her association with you. But she had such a power over me that I was only too willing to ignore the risks. You of all people must understand that…”

Was he goading me? Surely, he couldn’t be that stupid. Whether he was or not, I started to get angry, but I knew I needed to keep my temper in check long enough for him to finish his sordid little tale. I nodded and made a cavalier gesture with my left hand indicating that he should continue.

“We only had a short time together, but it was magical – or at least my selective memory has painted it as magical. The truth is, she spoke of you often, and often she cried.”

I bit my lower lip. “Was there a chase you were cutting to?”

He smiled and I could definitely see that he was enjoying having me on the hook. “You did say you wanted me to be specific. Now, where was I? Ah, yes, the Salad Days.” He leaned in. “Lilith lived with me for two weeks. At that time, I had a house in Pasadena; I wasn’t the shriveled husk you see before you now.” Apparently, his idea of ‘shriveled’ differed from mine, but he went on. “There were good times, certainly, but she was a fragile thing, and I was in a panic nearly every hour of the day. I would have said or done anything to keep her from leaving, but Lilith was not a woman who could be controlled. She left one morning while I slept and then she became the tide – endlessly returning and disappearing, returning and disappearing.”

He seemed to want commiseration, and I’d be damned before I would give it to him. My blood was up, but I spoke to him as calmly as I could. “Let me say this again: Lilith is dead – an apparent suicide (although I don’t believe that for a second). The fact that she set me on your trail hours before she was killed adds some weight to my hunch. I won’t rest until I find her killers. Even if you know me by reputation alone, you must have some idea of what I can be like when I take a notion to do a thing.”

One of his eyebrows went up. “Was there a threat in there somewhere? I’m not sure.”

“No threat. Not yet. But I am asking you – again – to confine yourself to the facts. Keep the… embellishment to yourself.”

He nodded and a layer of his persona melted away. For the first time, I felt as though I was looking at the Man rather than the Act. He pulled a bottle of scotch and a tumbler from his desk drawer and poured himself a drink. He gestured at me with the neck of the bottle. “You’re sure?”

“Positive.”

“You won’t remember me,” he began quietly, “but we met once in the days leading up to the War. I was a peripheral figure – a bureaucrat – but I was in a position to hear things. Things which shadowed my conscience and forced me to abstain from choosing a side.”

Right away, I knew exactly what he meant. Ordinarily, I can spot one of my own kind right away, but he had gone so badly to seed that I didn’t recognize him for what he was. “You were a… Bystander…”

“I prefer the term ‘conscientious objector’. As I indicated, I had reasons for the stance I adopted. But, in the end, our punishment was the same as yours – banishment. We could either follow you into Hell or – as long as we behaved ourselves – we could come here and live amongst the Second Born. I chose the latter, obviously.”

“And what does all of this have to do with Lilith?”

Evermeyer’s eyes grew misty and his look drifted far away. “In my selfish need to hold onto her, I told Lilith things – things she had no business knowing. Had she been able to keep a secret, all would have been well, but she was emotionally volatile; a drinker. She was indiscreet and it got her killed. I got her killed. The fault is mine.”

“What did you tell her?”

He looked up at me and his eyes were not only clear but brave. “I know you’ll think me a liar, but everything you’ve ever believed has been predicated on an untruth. You have a reputation as a deceiver and a seducer, but long ago, it was you who was deceived and seduced.”

“What in blazes are you talking about?”

“You didn’t fall from Heaven, Lucifer. You were pushed.”

I had no reason at all to believe him, but if what he said was true, so many of my questions would be answered. I needed so much to believe what he was saying was true, and in that need, I found an awakening faith. “Tell me everything,” I said, trying hard to hide my eagerness.

He nodded, resigned. “Of course. I – “

But then there was a sound like the tinkling of a tiny glass bell. While we both puzzled over its origins, a round, red circle appeared on the front of Evermeyer’s white shirt. He looked down at it and said, “Oh, how about that…” and then his face dropped down onto his desk blotter, and the tumbler rolled onto the floor.

Looking over my shoulder, I saw a perfectly round hole in the office window. I stood quickly and took sharp, right-angle turns back to the street. Rance was slumped against the building, a red dot prominent in the middle of his forehead. I began to walk down the street with long strides, determined to escape but also to avoid attention. The latter was a real trick since I was bruised and scraped, my suit was in ribbons, and my eyes were burning like angry coals. Someone had made a patsy out of me, and now someone was trying to rob me of the truth. A hate I hadn’t felt in a very long time entered into me, driving me relentlessly forward. I was a man on a mission, and I would see worlds quake before all was done.

A Review and a Resolution January 1, 2009

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As I write this, it’s 2009 on the East Coast. We still have three hours here to go on the left side, so I’m safe in squeezing in a quick New Year’s resolution — but first, a book review…

The Review:

Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver is about as “no-frills” a book on writing as you’re likely to find. Cleaver has a very simple philosophy regarding craft and he doesn’t waste a lot of time with the bells and whistles. In fact, he’s very superstitious of most of the things you’re likely to find in other books of this kind. He refers to things like beginning, middle and end; character progression; and theme as “critic words”. They’re not things the working writer thinks about (at least not unduly) when he is crafting his tales. Apart from a very straightforward rule-set, Cleaver stresses that there are no substitutes for intuition and good, old fashioned hard work. The ethos presented here strikes me as very Blue Collar. Writing is treated like a job — albeit a creative job that calls upon different personal resources than, say, digging ditches. Cleaver doesn’t shy away completely from the “touchy-feely” aspects in that he does do a chapter on Writer’s Block. But even this section of the book is direct and doesn’t overindulge in hand-holding. I do have one (relatively serious) complaint about Immediate Fiction before I move on to the Resolution part of this post… Given the “meat and potatoes” nature of Cleaver’s approach, I felt there was an unnecessary amount of reiteration in the book — almost as though the author was padding the text just so he could reach standard book length. I suppose that one could argue that reiteration is a part of teaching, but, even still, I thought there was a bit too much of it here.

Qualms aside, I was left admiring Immediate Fiction, and I feel that the philosophy it espouses is fairly close to my own nascent approach. Which brings me to the Resolution…

The Resolution:

I’m glad I enjoyed Immediate Fiction since it will be the last book on writing I will read in quite some time — at least through calendar year 2009. It’s time that I faced a few simple facts:

  • Talking about writing isn’t writing.
  • Thinking about writing isn’t writing.
  • Reading about writing isn’t writing.
  • Only writing is writing.

So then, my goal in 2009 is to become productive. I’ve already begun this process by starting with very short short stories — preferably less than 1000 words (the first of those stories appears here). I do three drafts per story and the I move on to the next one (I’m currently on story number two). My expectation is that, during the course of the year, I will allow myself to write longer stories, but I want to make sure I finish each one before I start another one. Of course, it would be terrific if I could start a novel during the year, but I will only do so if I feel like I have a firm grip on the process.

Anyway, wish me luck.

Storywatch 12.30.08 December 30, 2008

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For an explanation of just what in the hell this post is all about, go here.

Other People’s Stories:

  • “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” by William Gibson. Not really a short story so much as a fragment in time from an alternate (and very believable) future. Gibson’s style, despite its subject matter, is very noir; very Hammett/Chandler, but with a weird technological bent. Fascinating. Made me want to read Neuromancer again.
  • “A Clean, Well-lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway. Sometimes I read “Papa” and it’s just three or four pages of dialogue, and I just don’t know what I’m supposed to take from the story. If I’m not mistaken, Truman Capote once said about Hemingway, “That’s not writing, it’s just typing”. In the main, I think Truman was way off base, but he’s not completely wrong.
  • “The Little Mice” by Ray Bradbury. Nothing more than a brief slice-of-life. A man and his wife wonder at the odd habits of their tenants. They (and we) never find an answer to their questions, but it’s a fascinating trip, nevertheless.
  • “Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot” by Neil Gaiman. Not what I was expecting in that it’s nothing more than a series of incredibly short vignettes about vampires which don’t pull together at all to form a cohesive single entity. While there is an intriguing origin for vampires put forth, the story itself wasn’t really worth my time.
  • “Explorers We” by Philip K. Dick. A fun, old school sci-fi story — like Bradbury, but with a dose of Dick’s signature paranoia thrown in.

My Stories:

As you may have noticed, I posted my first ever piece of flash fiction on the site. I’m working on another, but I’m having a little trouble with the continuity. I’ll hammer at it again tomorrow.

The Books:

Short Fictions and Wonders (P.S.)

“Awake” — Flash Fiction Piece #1 December 26, 2008

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Here now is my first piece of flash fiction for the site. Please let me know what you think!

Awake:

Underneath the searing pain, Ruth saw a tiny, beckoning glimmer, and she recognized it for what it was: relief. The question would no longer be hers to answer; the responsibility would fall to someone else. Another wave of agony rolled through her. The chest into the arm, the chest into the arm – the left arm. Her vision contracted to a pinhole, a rippling tear surrounded by black. Through it, the porch. The porch Henry had painted three days before he died. Her home for the last fifty-two years. A fitting place for this. She listened, but she did not hear Daniel’s voice, or the clomp-clomp-clomp of his sneakered feet. “Now,” she whispered. “Now would be good.”

The pinhole dilated closed, completing the ebon field. Sound collapsed away too, like the inrush of too much water into the ears. Then the separating, the tingly disjointedness. The pinhole reopened, and the porch was replaced with… replaced with… One word came to mind: “Disney”. Amber, orange, blue, red, green, purple, yellow, and white – like a Technicolor cartoon of the forties, and everything was suffused with the scent of honeysuckle. A momentary flash of herself as a child – maybe six – standing by the fence of her parents’ home, patiently drawing the white tube from the heart of a honeysuckle flower, placing it in her mouth, and relishing the tiny beads of nectar.

“Take my hand.” The voice was Sharon’s – to the right and clear in a way that no voice had ever been. Without ears, without ear canals, without cartilage, bone or blood to obscure the sound. This was a voice not heard in almost four years and it was all the sweeter for its heart-breaking clarity. Ruth held out what she thought was her hand and she felt Sharon take it. She felt every line, every fold, every crease of their palms conjoin, and she felt their two pulses synch in their rhythm and become one.

Over the sound of their commingled heartbeat, Ruth heard a new rhythm, a familiar rhythm which unnerved her and which she tried to ignore.

“Come with me,” Sharon said. “There’s no reason to be afraid.” And, if Sharon said there was no cause for fear, Ruth knew that it was true. Sharon had become for Ruth a model of courage. The girl had lived on that table longer than any doctor’s power to force her. She had willed herself alive until the moment Daniel had passed from her – a final, brutal act of motherly love which had left Ruth awestruck. Sharon knew something about bravery, and Ruth trusted her implicitly.

A clomp-clomp-clomp made resonant by the wooden plank flooring. The familiar creak of the old screen door.

“We have to hurry,” Ruth said. Ahead, through the slow-turning kaleidoscope, there was another presence. The smell of linseed oil joined the smell of honeysuckle. Henry.

But Sharon moved no more quickly.

“Gamma?” The voice came from outside. Outside the movement, and the tube of color, and the strange presences. Its tone was questioning, but too innocent to be tinged with real concern. The clomping of small sneakers drew closer to Ruth’s head, lying now quietly upon the porch floor.

“Please. We must go faster.” But they moved at the same maddeningly slow pace. Sharon seemed incapable of quicker progress, and Ruth was suddenly cross with her. Hadn’t Sharon been watching? Hadn’t she seen what Daniel could do?

The little voice again, terrifically loud, echoing through her brittle form like a weapon of sound. “Gamma?”

Ruth remembered the baby bird from last summer, fallen from its nest, broken and gray, covered with ants. Daniel had approached it, ignorant of death and coldly curious about what this inert form upon the lawn might be.

“Don’t touch,” Ruth had said. “Icky-dirty.”

But Daniel had touched the bird with a tiny pointer finger, nudging the oversized head with unsophisticated tactile curiosity. Immediately, the baby bird had come alive though its body was broken, and varicolored liquids leaked from many fissures. It screamed in a way that Ruth had heard no bird scream before – terrifying, tragic and accusing. She had been locked in place for a moment, unsure of what to do, but then she had taken up one of the heavy stones separating the garden from the lawn.

“Awake?” Daniel had wondered.

And then Ruth had dropped the stone onto the baby bird, killing it again.

There had been other instances since, banishing doubt. A calcified spider on a windowsill. A mouse in a trap under the sink. What was Daniel, and what would he become?

A small hand touched her cooling neck, and the tunnel of color collapsed. Sharon was there and then not. Henry never had been. Ruth could no longer smell either linseed or honeysuckle. She opened her eyes and looked into a freckled three-and-a-half-year-old face. “Gamma?” it asked.

Ruth coughed, gasping for air, wheezing inside a dry old throat. Tears sprouted and a vertigo she didn’t realize she had was suddenly gone.

“Gamma? Awake?”

Finally, Ruth could speak. “Yes, honey,” she said. “Gramma’s awake.”

Merry Christmas! December 25, 2008

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Storywatch 12.24.08 December 24, 2008

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Other People’s Stories:

I mentioned in a prior post how I planned to start reading (and analyzing) more short stories. Well, I don’t know how analytical I’m being at this time. My knee-jerk inclination is to read them and enjoy them; to get myself into the headspace more than get bogged down in any sort of overly academic exercise. Here are the admittedly spare notes I scrawled in my notebook upon completing each story. Don’t expect me to go much deeper than this in the future — I don’t imagine that would be much fun for either of us. Who knows? Maybe one of this series of ongoing capsule reviews will spark your interest in some of the authors I’m delving into at the moment.

  • Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”. Dark and difficult to read, and with a definite Agenda in mind. Yes, Harlan’s got an axe to grind, but the result is so beautifully written and nicely structured that I didn’t mind. The main character becomes the thing she fears — doing so out of a simple survival instinct. Ellison actually makes a credible case for selfishness in the face of hard reality.
  • “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Once again, I stand in awe of F. Scott’s powers. The story is close to perfect (if a little antiquated in its style), and the ending is deeply affecting.
  • “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman. Most of this story hangs on a premise I would call merely cute. We’ve seen this exchange a million times: A confident guy tells his shy friend that all he needs to do to get girls is talk to them. “It’s not like they’re from another planet,” he’ll invariably say. Well, in this story, the girls are from another planet. Fortunately, the ending takes a scary/poignant turn that gives the story some heft. Not one of Gaiman’s best, but definitely readable.
  • “The Book of Blood” by Clive Barker. This isn’t so much a proper story as it is the intro/framing device for a larger collection. A group of vengeful dead carve a series of stories into the living flesh of a false medium who’s been misrepresenting their aims. Each of the stories is a tale from the collection Barker is about to lay in front of us. Even though it’s not much of a stand-alone, it is very well-written and it whets your appetite for what’s to come. Barker was gifted in his day. What happened to this guy?
  • “Pickman’s Model” by H.P. Lovecraft. Although well-written enough, I suppose, “Model” is both obvious and repetitive. Lovecraft could’ve gotten the same effect in half the space. And, even in half the space, he needed a climax which was less telegraphed and more impactful.

My Stories:

Today I completed the first draft of my first piece of “flash fiction”. (Would you believe I didn’t know what flash fiction was until I embarked upon this blog?) The story has a touch of the metaphysical and runs roughly a thousand words in its current form. I won’t subject you to it until I’ve redrafted it a time or two, but I am pleased with it even in its embryonic form.

The Books:

Deathbird Stories

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other Jazz Age Stories (Penguin Classics)

Short Fictions and Wonders (P.S.)

Clive Barker's Books of Blood 1-3

Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre

The Perils of Navel-gazing December 23, 2008

Posted by doubledown in Essays, Writing.
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Let me go ahead and get one of my New Year’s Resolutions out of the way early: In 2009, I promise to spend less time navel-gazing and more time actually working.I waste an inordinate amount of time web-surfing, reading how-tos, thinking, note-taking, and talking — all on the subject of writing. And let us not forget the other activity to which I routinely lose hours and hours: beating myself up for failings both real and imagined. There may not be much I can do to address that latter failing (after all, I am only human), but if I were to spend half as much time writing as I do in the pursuit of all of those other activities, I would have myself a reasonably fine body of work. It’s time to make some changes, and I know just where to start. I plan to stop reading books on writing altogether in the calendar year of 2009. I’m currently in the middle of a volume called Immediate Fiction, but I have every reason to believe that I will have completed it by the end of December. After that, I’m cutting myself off.

My plan for the immediate future is to write as many short stories as I can as rapidly as i can without sacrificing quality. I’m going to make them as short as possible so that I can get through them and, hopefully, build up confidence enough to tackle longer and longer works. I’m thinking that stories in the range of 1200 words or less is a good place to start. (Don’t ask me how I came up with that number. It was completely arbitrary.) Today, I went through my notebook and pulled out all of the story ideas that seemed like likely candidates for this little experiment. To my astonishment, I had a list roughly twenty-five entries long. I’m looking forward to diving in and making stories out of the list. I have little doubt that many of my attempts will be horrendous, but if I get a gem or two out of the lot, it will have all been worth it.

I’m a father of young children and I keep a wonky schedule anyway, but today I began a dedicated writing time which i plan to uphold at least five days a week (seven if I’m lucky).

Operation Head Out of My Ass has begun.

The Writer as Moses December 22, 2008

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My experience working as a professional writer is admittedly very limited compared to the other ways in which I’ve earned my daily bread, but I did notice a peculiar and frustrating phenomenon which surfaced — sometimes serially — in both freelance and full time gigs. I never did find a way to put this little problem to rest and I think the reason for that is simple: there is no way to put it to rest — not without seriously rewiring the brains of all of my various employers. What the hell am I talking about? I’m talking about the difficulty the paid creative writer has in gaining the simple (and one would think inalienable) right to iterate. You folks out there that write know what the process is like: you write something and it’s crap. You throw it out and start again and that version is crap too. Only through persistence and redrafting do you get to anything that’s worth showing off. But certainly writing isn’t unique in this respect: all of the arts involve working and reworking; it’s just a part of the process. But people who don’t practice a craft find this a difficult concept to grasp — particularly as it pertains to the written word. My most specific example of this nagging issue came from my nine-to-five gigs. The people who pay our paychecks want to be kept apprised of our progress, and they want to feel like contributors in the process. I get that, and I’ll be the first to concede that they’re within their rights to adopt this stance. As the old saying goes, “It’s their nickel”. Here’s where you run into trouble, however: most people don’t understand the concept of the first draft. They think that what you’re handing them is the equivalent of Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai, stone tablets in hand. Each and every time I would hand in my first pass at something, I would explain that I was not turning in something etched in granite but I was, in fact, giving them nothing more than a proof of concept for my intended approach. Suggestions were welcome and any polish should probably wait until after everyone was on board for the concept. But there’s something that fires deep within the Reptile Brain when a sheet of white paper with printed black letters is presented. We immediately associate that page — despite the fact that it’s still warm from the laser printer — with the page from a bound book. We think that the words are somehow inviolate, sacred. A subtle antagonism develops, sabotaging the ability to move forward. The bossman thinks that there’s no room for change and he thinks that you’re trying to stick him with something he’s not entirely comfortable with. I try to be patient in these situations and, fortunately, in the places where I’ve done full time writing, I’ve had an analogue I could point to: the Art Department. When an Art Director turns in a pencil sketch, no one mistakes it for the finished piece; it’s immediately understood to be a bridger to the end result, a proof of concept. I would point to the pencil drawings hanging on the walls and say to my employers, “What I’m about to hand you is a pencil sketch, a tool to kick off our conversations about what it is we both want to get out of this.” They would invariably smile and nod, seeming to get the concept, but the Reptile Brain/Laser Printer Problem would invariably resurface and win the day. I honestly thought about doing my first drafts longhand, but there’s just something not quite right about subjecting your boss to your chicken scratch. Despite whatever psychological merit the ploy may have, it feels unprofessional. I never did lick the Moses Problem, and I’ve talked to other writers who’ve also encountered it. It’d be a great thing if we could someday discover better tools for writers and non-writers to communicate, but I’ll be damned if I know what those tools are.

I’d be interested in hearing from any of you out there who’ve encountered the Moses Problem — paricularly if you found ways of dealing with it consistently.

A Two-pronged Post December 21, 2008

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A Little History:

I’m not Catholic so a full confession isn’t in order here. However, I thought a taste of my personal history might help make clear my intent in starting this site. I’ll follow up with some thoughts on what I intend to do going forward.

I’ve always loved storytelling and I’ve been a writer ever since I knew what being a writer meant. I took the logical course for someone with my inclinations: I got a Bachelor’s Degree in English with a heavy emphasis in Creative Writing. This, of course, had the logical outcome… After I got tired of working Retail (I had neither the interest nor the temperament to to teach), I went back to school to learn computer graphics and animation. I’d always had a slightly artistic bent anyway, and this new field seemed like it might afford me a decent living. It did for a number of years, but there was a peculiar side effect. The great teacher and mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, “If the person doesn’t listen to the demands of his own spiritual and heart life and insists on a certain program, you’re going to have a schizophrenic crack-up. The person has put himself off center. He has aligned himself with a programmatic life and it’s not the one the body’s interested in at all”. I’m not suggesting that, as a result of my career choice, I experienced anything as grandiose as a schizophrenic crack-up, but I do think Campbell was onto something. I had to reprogram my mind away from being the Writer it always thought it was, and into being the Animator it needed to be to make a living. I’m still feeling the effects of that reprogramming to this day. What sorts of effects? The usual stuff — writer’s blocks, second guessing, lack of confidence. As I get older and my life gets more complicated, I’ve decided that I need to write in order to be complete. (Jeeze, I hope that’s not as hippie-dippy as it sounds.) At any rate, I’m now on a quest to re-reprogram myself.

Below are some of my immediate aims.

A Program of Study:

I know in my heart that I’m not ready to take on anything as long or as elaborate as a novel. To re-coin a cliche: You have to walk before you can run — so, short stories it is. In order to get myself in the proper headspace, I’ve gathered up all of the better short story collections I own, and put them into a little pile. From here on in it’s at least one short story a day with selection based on whatever my mood du jour might be. In cases where I have more than one collection from the same author, I’ve selected the shortest book. The goal here is not only to read, but to analyze these tales. If it’s a good story, why is it a good story? (And vice versa, of course.) I’ll probably share some of these observations as I travel merrily along the path.

As soon as possible, I want to start generating my own material with the immediate goal of writng two complete stories a month. Hereagain, I may share some of these stories either in their entirety or in abridged form.

Here’s a list of some of the authors to be found in that aforementioned pile. From this list, you’ll get a snapshot of my taste.

  1. Harlan Ellison
  2. Stephen King
  3. Neil Gaiman
  4. Ray Bradbury
  5. J.D. Salinger
  6. Robert E. Howard
  7. H.P. Lovecraft
  8. F. Scott Fitzgerald
  9. Ernest Hemingway
  10. Clive Barker
  11. Phillip K. Dick
  12. William Gibson

Obviously, I lean a little toward the fanciful, the horrific, and the pulpish, but overall, I think it’s a pretty diverse list. I’m looking forward to diving in.

The Drowned Life December 20, 2008

Posted by doubledown in Reviews, Writing.
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The Drowned Life (P.S.)

I stumbled across Jeffrey Ford’s The Drowned Life — a collection of short stories — quite by accident one day as I was browsing the “New & Noteworthy” section of the Kindle store. The description intrigued me enough that I downloaded a sample chapter and I was immediately hooked. Ford’s writing style is elegant without being ostentatious and his choice of subject matter and use of imagery is very engaging. One of the things I really enjoyed about this collection was its all-over-the-map sensibility. Within the same (virtual) covers, there were stories which might be labeled “straightforward modern fiction” (and by that I mean stories about normal people in normal crisis saying normal things albeit eloquently), and stories which were wonderfully askew –shot through with elements of folklore and whimsy. In many ways, The Drowned Life reminded me of how I used to write before I became bogged down with neuroses and shattered dreams. It’s the type of writing I’d like to get back to if I could ever get my head out of my own ass.

But I digress and I didn’t set out trying to bring down the room. Bottom line: read The Drowned Life. It’s really good. Good enough to make me seek out more of Jeffrey Ford’s stuff.