Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Learning from Others

Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction contains "Semper Fi," one of his own stories. Only this story is annotated with Knight's thoughts on what he was thinking when he wrote it and the devices he used. The story is on the even pages, the notes across from it on the odd pages. This is a great idea and is extremely helpful. I wish more people who pen books on writing would annotate their own stories.

You can find some other books that are very helpful in explaining how sf/f stories work:

Robert Silverberg's Science Fiction 101 (formerly Worlds of Wonder) contains Silverberg's thoughts on each story from a writer's point of view. The stories are somewhat old school, but there's good stuff there. (Silverberg's introduction alone is worth the price of the book.)

Two other books that do the same thing (recommended to me by Gordon Van Gelder at Clarion) are Paragons and Those Who Can, both edited by Robin Scott Wilson. Both contain examples of stories and author essays on plot, character, theme, point of view, etc. Paragons contains more current writers (Nancy Kress, Karen Joy Fowler, Lucius Shepard, Kim Stanley Robinson, John Kessel, etc.) than does Those Who Can, but both books are excellent.

Intersections is a collection of stories submitted to and critiqued at the Sycamore Hill Writers' Conference, an invitation-only event featuring some of the biggest names in sf/f. Not only do you get great stories, you also get to read how the participants critiqued each story. Extremely valuable. Intersections is edited by John Kessel, Mark L. Van Name and Richard Butner.

That's it for today. Happy writing, happy studying.

Now Playing = Now Here Is Nowhere – Secret Machines

The Journey to Best Picture

Last year I almost made it. I saw four of the five films nominated for Best Picture. The only one I missed, Mystic River, I saw a couple of weeks after the Oscars.

I don't think I'll even get that close this year. With only six days left, I have three films to see. But I'm going to try. Of the five nominated films, I saw Ray about four weeks ago and Million Dollar Baby yesterday. Having seen Eastwood's latest film, I have to ask two questions:

1 – Is Million Dollar Baby really one of the five best films of 2004?
2 – Why didn't Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind receive a nomination for Best Picture?

There's been a lot of controversy about Million Dollar Baby and if you haven't seen it, I'll be bringing up a few SPOILERS now. But forgetting the controversy concerning the ending (which bothered me, but other things bothered me much more), I want to talk about the film itself and whether it deserves the "Best Picture" nomination.

Now anybody that follows movies will tell you that the five films nominated for Best Picture are not always the five best films of that year. Many films (especially independent ones) are often ignored by Hollywood for obvious reasons. Some years are better (or worse) than others and sometimes a film that's just not that good slips in. That's the case (at least for me) with Million Dollar Baby.

This isn't a boxing movie. I didn't believe for one minute that anything happening onscreen was in any way true to boxing. I'm no boxing authority, but what I do know about it contradicted what I saw onscreen. So if it's not a boxing movie, what is it?

It's a melodrama.

Don't get me wrong, it's pretty good as melodramas go. But the story feels manipulated, contrived and artificial. Morgan Freeman's narration reminds us way too much of The Shawshank Redemption and when at the end we learn the reason for the narration, we think, "That's just not plausible. Why would this man write this letter to a woman he'd never met? And why would she even read it?" Frankie's (Eastwood's) strained relationship with his daughter only serves one purpose: to have Freeman's character narrate the story.

Again, the boxing scenes are just too much to accept, especially Maggie's title fight. I didn't believe one bit of it, plus it was telegraphed in big, flashing letters. Maggie's family consists of stereotypical cardboard characters that just aren't convincing. A director asks his audience to believe that certain things can and would happen under certain circumstances and I didn't believe Clint this time. I just don't think this film's that good.

And I certainly don't think it is a better film than Eternal Sunshine, which is original, well acted and directed, brilliantly edited, compelling and satisfying. But I've learned over the years to never expect justice on Oscar night.

More about writing next time. I promise.

Now Playing = Mingus Ah Um – Charles Mingus

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Backstory, or Why Can't I Write It? HE Did!

I can't tell you how much I'm enjoying and learning from Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction. What a great, practical book. But that's not what I wanted to yap about today.

I started reading a certain novel two days ago. It's by a much recognized and honored writer. This particular mainstream book, in fact, won several awards the year it came out (over ten years ago). It begins with a brief description of the setting, which is itself a character. The opening only hints at the coming conflict between characters. What follows next is our good friend Backstory.

And it goes on. And on.

And nothing happens. I mean nothing for the next three chapters, which is where I stopped.

Then I started reading Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, which also contains quite a bit of backstory. The difference between the two books is Roth's opening is so compelling (What if Charles Lindbergh became a Nazi sympathizer and beat FDR in the 1940 presidential election?) that I didn't mind the backstory. In fact while reading, I understood that Roth was using the backstory to explain to me how this intriguing premise could have legitimately come about. Maybe the first writer was going to show me how his/her characters were going to develop, but after three chapters of zero conflict and a not very engaging premise, I wasn't about to hang around any longer.

So we've got two established writers using a lot of backstory. But Roth knows how to get away with it. The first writer didn't sell the backstory as well as Roth, but he/she got away with it too (just not with me). Watch out for backstory, boys and girls, it's everywhere. When you find it, see if it's justified. See if it goes on for too long. Today's lesson is over. Happy writing.

Now Playing = B.B. King Live in Cook County Jail

Monday, February 14, 2005

Valentine's Day, Ursula K. Le Guin and Fred (Sorry, these topics have nothing in common whatsoever.)

Happy Valentine's Day, Boys and Girls,

Well, it's that time of year again - no, not Valentine's Day, but Navy Band tour, which Cindy is on for three weeks. That translates into: I've got to cook for myself, clean for myself, etc. But I get to read and write more, so I'm looking forward to three super-productive writing weeks. As long as I don't fall asleep watching American Movie Classics or something like that.

Reading some really good stuff. Read two Ursula K. Le Guin stories this weekend, "Nine Lives" (which is very good) and "The Day Before the Revolution" (which is so good it's scary). Anybody who doesn't read Le Guin should be taken out and whipped right now, this very minute! Man, the woman can write. I'm in awe.

I'm also working my way through Damon Knight's excellent book Creating Short Fiction. Knight says that the act of putting a story together involves a collaboration between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind, which he calls Fred. A lot of times when you're working on a story, you've simply got to turn it over to Fred; he's the only guy who can get it done. The only problem is Fred doesn't keep a regular schedule.

I've been working on a couple of short stories that I hope to send out in the next few weeks. One of them just won't get over a certain hump. I've told Fred to work it out; I've done all I can do with it. The answer I get? "I've got a couple of my best guys on it now." Yeah. I can just picture a couple of overweight derelicts taking a nap on top of several pages of my manuscript.

Fred will eventually come through. He's got stacks and stacks of my manuscripts in his IN box and a few paragraphs in his OUT box, but he'll get the job done. Sure, I'd like him to work faster. What can I do, fire him? Who else would work this cheap?

Happy Writing

Now Playing = The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album (Hey, it's Valentine's Day, alright?)

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

See, I'm Not the Only One

Today I was looking at the number of stories I'd sent to markets last year compared to what I've sent out so far this year. Much fewer this year. Right now I've only got three stories floating around out there, all of them revisions of stories written at Clarion. I've been working on a new story for about a month and it's slowly taking shape. It might be ready to send out after another three to six weeks.

Now I'm looking at my goals list on my monitor. "Keep at least 5 stories in circulation and send out a new one every 2 weeks." Nope. Not gonna happen. I think I could do that, but I'd be wasting some editor's time and moving my name to the top of the "Discard Immediately" pile.

Some of my Clarion buddies are going through this same process of slowing down, which tells me I'm probably on the right track. I think the key to the whole thing is knowing your characters. In the story I’m working on now, I've been freewriting about two of my characters for the past few days. I'm learning a little more about them each day. Not all of what I'm learning will make it into the story, but it's all stuff I need to know. The more you know the character, the more he will tell you what to do. Do you ever re-read something you've written and your character says "I'd never do that. Never. Delete that, you clown. That's not me." Happens to me. (Sometimes I get called things worse than a clown, though.)

It's not just character, it's also setting, tone, pacing and about a dozen other things. The temptation is to concentrate on all of them at once, but you have to isolate problems. One thing at a time. Patience. Patience. Patience.

Now Playing = How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb – U2

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Out of the Sick Boat

Man, I'm glad that's over. Most of it is, anyway. Cindy got sick first, then I got it. I mean I couldn't do anything. Surprisingly it didn’t hurt too badly to read, so I got some books read and watched a few movies, two of which were outstanding.

2003's House of Sand and Fog (based on the novel of the same name, which I have not read) is a modern-day tragedy with excellent performances, especially from Ben Kingsley. (Although it still chaps me that he won the Oscar for Ghandi – a part he was literally born to play - over Paul Newman in The Verdict in 1983.) I'd give the film 4.5 stars out of 5. In the last third of the film, one of the characters does something major that the viewer was not prepared for. The character wasn't prepared for it either; there was no indication that this character had any inclination to do this thing. It just didn't ring true for me, but I suppose the film couldn't have continued (or ended) without it. Sorry I can't be more specific, but I don't want to spoil the film for you. (And you should see it.)

I also saw 2004's outstanding Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It's a crime that this film is not nominated for Best Picture. I had absolutely no idea what the film was about when I rented it, so I'll leave you in the same situation by not describing the plot. But this is an exceptional film, beautifully photographed, brilliantly constructed, well acted. Don't be surprised if you see yourself in it.

Now Playing = Medulla - Bjork