Monday, October 31, 2005

Margo Lanagan/10th Time Around

If you haven't heard of her yet, you will soon. Her name is Margo Lanagan and she writes stories so good I'm in awe. She's published several books in her native Australia, but so far, the only book available in America is her collection Black Juice. Good luck finding it, though: it's being marketed as YA, and while the protagonists are young adults, these are definitely not stories only for YA. (I've yet to find it at the usual bookstores, although it is available on Amazon. I hope to pick it up this week at WFC.)

I've only read the two stories she has in the eighteenth edition of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, "Rite of Spring" and "Singing My Sister Down." Both stories involve rites of passage, in a manner of speaking. The characters are at the same time ordinary and extraordinary, familiar and completely foreign. While reading them, you have the sense that you're in another world, yet right in your own backyard. And the writing is absolutely spellbinding. Seek Lanagan out.

How many roads must a story walk down before you call it a loser? (Sorry, Bob.) I just sent out a Clarion story (revised, of course) called "Where the Vultures Feed." It's been rejected nine times previously. That's right, nine.

Why do I keep sending it out? I don't know, maybe because it's a story that's very personal (Aren't they all?), one that I believe in very strongly. It generally got good comments at Clarion and I believe the revisions have strengthened it. Maybe I'm too close to it, but I still think it's a good story. But if it gets rejected again, it's time to retire it. I've got too many other stories to write.

Happy there any candy corn left?

Now Playing = Bitches Brew – Miles Davis
Now Reading = Why Should I Cut Your Throat? – Jeff VanderMeer

Friday, October 28, 2005

Lucius Shepard's "Salvador"

I haven't read that many stories by Lucius Shepard, but the ones I've read, I've read over and over. Right now I'm studying "Salvador." (You can find it in his collection The Jaguar Hunter. More recently, it's appeared in Dozois's The Best of the Best anthology.)

The first two sentences provide a great example of why beginnings are so important. In the sentence, Shepard introduces a character, a setting, and cause for incredible tension. No specific details – you don't really know who Dantzler is or what he's doing in a place called Tecolutla, but you know enough. All in twelve words; a very simple sentence, too.

The second, much longer sentence, is loaded with description of the setting, insight into Dantzler's character, and a feel for the tone of what's to come. Plus it advances the plot. It's long (76 words), but it's still just one sentence.

I studied those first two sentences for a long time and kept coming back to them throughout my reading and rereading. Shepard really sets the framework of the whole story with those two sentences. When you filter the rest of the story through them, it works powerfully. And when you get to the end of the story, you know that Shepard has not only played fair with you by remaining true to those first two sentences, but he's also taken you somewhere with them that he could not have taken you without them. The guy's good.

Think I'll be spending a little more time on my own openings...

Now Playing = "A Foggy Day" – Chet Baker

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Creativity - Train, Plane or Boat?

This morning I started reading Dylan's Visions of Sin by Christopher Ricks, an examination of not only the presence of the seven deadly sins in Bob Dylan's music, but also the four cardinal virtues and the three graces. (Can you name them all? I couldn't.)

The book presupposes that the reader has

1) something of an appreciation of Dylan
2) something of a knowledge of Dylan's music

In the first chapter, Ricks mentions that while he obviously believes Dylan is a superb writer/poet, Bob's probably not conscious of all of the subtleties and shadings present in his own work. He includes this quote from Dylan:

"As you get older, you get smarter and that can hinder you because you try to gain control over the creative impulse. Creativity is not like a freight train going down the tracks. It's something that has to be caressed and treated with a great deal of respect. If your mind is intellectually in the way, it will stop you. You've got to program your brain not to think too much."

This is very much in line with what Jeffrey Ford taught us as Clarion. I constantly labor to shovel coal into my little train, to follow the track, to make all the proper stops at the proper time. Jump off the train. Instead, jump into a boat (no motor, no oars) and let it take you where it wants to go, at least during the first draft. Maybe this is so hard to do because I spent so many years teaching, analyzing what a student is doing wrong and trying to fix it. It's a perspective shift that's hard to overcome.

But overcome it I did, at least for awhile – The first draft of my short story "Fingerpaint" is finished, coming in at just over 3,000 words.

Now let's see where this boat is going.

Now Playing = "I Looked Away" – Michael Nesmith
Still Reading = Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman
The Best American Short Stories of the Century – John Updike, ed.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Speed of Stories/Movies for Halloween

It's a nice feeling having a story that just seems to flow out of you. The story I'm working on now is doing just that. It's been so long since that's happened (pre-Clarion) that I'm almost scared of the way it feels. I'm about 2,000 words into "Fingerpaint," a story that probably will end up being a little less than 3,000. I don't know if I should second-guess myself and the way the story's progressing, or just let it continue. I can always second-guess during revision.

Thanks to my friend Kelly for recommending some good movies to rent for Halloween. I'm particularly looking forward to Dead Birds. Some movies that I've enjoyed gearing up for Halloween:

The Old Dark House
The Bride of Frankenstein
The Fearless Vampire Killers
Evil Dead 2
The Haunting (original)

What's everyone's favorite movie to watch during Halloween?

Nine days until World Fantasy!

Now Playing = The Best of Louis Armstrong: The Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings
Now Reading = Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman
From Ghetto to Glory: The Story of Bob Gibson

Saturday, October 22, 2005

New Printer/New Story/New World Series

My old printer crapped out this weekend, so I gnashed my teeth and went out to purchase another one yesterday. I almost stopped at Best Buy first, but I've had trouble getting people to help me there in the past. I've also heard others through the years voice the same thing.

I'd read in Good to Great how Circuit City is one of the eleven "good to great" companies in that book's study. (If you have ANY interest at all in business, I highly recommend the book.) So I tried Circuit City.

This particular location wasn't good, great, or even awake. I had to chase down someone in a red Circuit City shirt and even after I snagged him, he was no help. I wiped the dust of that place off my feet and waltzed down to Best Buy.

Man, things have changed around Best Buy. Long story short, I got great, fast, friendly service. The guy helping me even gave me his card and said to call him if anything goes wrong. Best Buy will get my business from now on. (And to top things off, Best Buy had free sampler CDs of Bob Dylan at Carnegie Hall 1963.)

Started a new story tonight tentatively titled "Fingerpaint." Will try to finish it and send it out before WFC so I'll have at least three stories out there.

Ah, a new World Series starts tonight! This should be fun. For once, I like both teams.

Now Playing = "Lush Life" - Chet Baker
Now Reading = Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman

Thursday, October 20, 2005

David Lynch's Eraserhead

About 20 years ago I saw Eraserhead for the first time. I was in college and didn't really know anything about the film before I sat down to watch it. Come to think of it, I didn't know anything about the film after I watched it either.

But in later years I began to appreciate Lynch's talent through films like The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet and most recently Mulholland Drive. So I decided to give Eraserhead another try.

The first thing that strikes you about the film is Lynch's visual style. The stark black-and-white images literally burn themselves into your skull and you start believing in this depressing post-industrial wasteland you're watching. The sounds of the film add another level of depression and creepiness. I can't imagine the film without the sound effects.

The DVD I saw contains a long (almost an hour and a half) reminiscence with Lynch on the making of the film, which is interesting, but reveals nothing of the film's meaning. Only at the very end does Lynch state that no critic or viewer has ever come close to grasping his interpretation of the film. I'll give my thoughts in a minute. (If you haven't seen the film, don't read any further.)

First of all, many people poo-poo on the movie because it was a film school project. So that means you can't take it seriously? I don't think so. I certainly admire the risks Lynch takes in the film. Whether you think it works or not, you can't ignore the power of what's on the screen. So forget that it's a "student" film.

Second, it sets the stage for later Lynch. Roger Ebert lambasted Blue Velvet for not playing fair with the audience because it contained what Ebert thought was inappropriate humor in such a disturbing film. Humor is in Eraserhead as well, mostly in the first third of the film. I think it's somewhat absurdist humor, but it tells us a little about Lynch's (or the main character Henry's) world.

What does the film mean? Good question. Most people (if they finish viewing the film at all) walk out with WTF expressions on their faces. I can understand their feelings. You can't really watch Eraserhead once and expect to understand it. I don't even pretend to have the thing figured out, but I believe I've picked out some of the film's themes that work for me:

Fear of fatherhood. Although he does try, Henry (John Nance) doesn't really know to take care of the "baby" (one of the most disgusting children in film history). His fear is evident in almost every frame and especially the moment before and after he picks up the scissors (what an awful scene), foreshadowed earlier by the chicken incident.

Fear of marriage/responsibility. You see this early in the film.

But for me, the biggest theme is Henry's always wanting to find a woman who understands him. I may be way off, but it's no mistake that the film contains three very different women. Does Henry find the woman that's best for him in the end? I don't know. Does the assembly line of pencils in the dream sequence signify the sameness of industrialized humanity? Does the eraser symbolize that everything in our lives can be wiped out and brushed away? Does Henry go to heaven with the Radiator Woman?

I don't know the answer to any of these questions. But that didn't take anything away from my enjoyment of the film. And I plan to see it again. Someday.

Hey, maybe I can do my hair like Henry....

Now Playing = "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" – Bob Dylan
Now Reading = Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman
Stable Strategies and Others – Eileen Gunn

Monday, October 17, 2005

Creepy in Vermont/Notre Dame/Baseball

Just finished Joseph Citro's Shadow Child, a creepy little book set in rural Vermont (Citro's home state). Citro makes good use of the Vermont winter, rural isolationism and local folk tales to create some really nice tension. I read most of the book while on vacation in Vermont and even though it was autumn, it felt pretty spooky reading the book at night.

Citro's style is very readable, very natural; nothing fancy. He wants you to turn the pages and you do, but he's not the type of writer you typically associate with "page turners." He also uses multiple POVs, which works for this story quite well. I had a pretty good idea where the story was going, but the way Citro led me was somewhat surprising and satisfying.

Speaking of surprising, I was hoping that Notre Dame would pull out a victory over USC (University of Spoiled Children) on Saturday. Man, that ending was a real shocker. Wouldn't you know it – the one time I pull for Notre Dame, they lose. I normally don't like Notre Dame because of the incredible bias the media and sportswriters have for them. Even when they're mediocre, they're lauded into the Top 25. (I remember one year they got invited to a bowl game with a 5-6 record. Come on!)

But I was pulling for them on Saturday. Weis is a good coach. In the long run, he'll figure out a way for ND to emerge stronger as a result of Saturday's loss to USC. When Weis gathers a little more talent and a couple of his own recruiting classes at ND, watch out.

And how about baseball? Some weird officiating (especially in the ALCS), but some great games! We already know the White Sox are going to the World Series and it looks like they'll play the Astros. Would that be a pitching battle or what? You probably wouldn't see many games with more than four runs, but with such great pitching, who cares?

Sunday, October 16, 2005

My Trip to Vermont


Back from our trip to Vermont, which was somewhat a disappointment in the foliage department, but a definite food and drink fest.

The fall colors weren't as varied as Cindy and I would have liked – a few fiery oranges, fewer reds, mostly lighter yellows – but still beautiful. Everywhere we traveled in Vermont (mostly the west/central part of the state) offered great scenery, inviting attractions and a welcome lack of gaudy signs and franchise overkill. More on some of those attractions in a moment; first the food.

On Monday night I had a wonderful free range oven hearth chicken with asparagus, garlic mashed potatoes and a super-smooth vegetable gratin. Heaven. Neither Cindy nor I could find any room for dessert, so we went back the next night for a chocolate bomb that was the bomb.

The next morning I got zipped up by sampling the various maple syrups at The Maple Museum. I never realized that the best of the syrups you can get in stores consist of only 3% maple syrup. Vermont (100% maple) produces syrup grades:

Fancy – light amber, mild maple flavor
A-Medium Amber – a traditional maple flavor
A-Dark Amber – a heartier maple flavor than A-Medium
Grade B – Very strong maple flavor, really stout stuff

They're all great and we bought some of all of 'em! (Just drop on by our house for pancakes anytime.)

Some of the touristy stuff was pretty good, as touristy stuff goes: The Norman Rockwell Museum, The Calvin Coolidge Museum, The Vermont Country Store (a really fun place) and the Robert Frost Trail. This last one is a great idea, mainly because it honors a writer. It's an outdoor trail interspersed with Frost's poetry every few yards. (It's ironic that there's a signpost at "The Road Not Taken" that points the correct way to go. You actually could walk in the other direction.) I'm not a huge Robert Frost fan, but just the thought of having poetry posted along a nature trail is way cool. I wonder if we'll ever see the Ursula K. Le Guin Nature Trail or the Kelly Link Rosebud Garden Path. Wouldn't that be cool?

(Cool also was Frost's cabin where he spent several summers writing, although you can't go inside).

We visited two breweries, the Long Trail Brewery and the Otter Creek Brewery, both of which have excellent offerings. I liked the Otter Creek Octoberfest beer best of all.

A lot of the really great stuff in Vermont you have to find on your own, but it's worth the effort. I met a guy that owns a used bookstore in Middlebury – he actually used to live in Bowie, MD (just five miles down the road). He sold me a Lucius Shepard book* and told me about a great restaurant in Middlebury called Tully and Marie's, where I had an absolutely succulent leg of lamb with carrots and potatoes.

The cottage where we stayed also served meals Wednesday thorough Sunday, so we ate there during our last evening in Vermont. The ribeye was exceptional, but the maple flan for dessert absolutely took me to another plane. Man....

So all in all, a great trip. Great food, great attractions, great used and independent bookstores, great people. I'm a Vermont fan for life.

Now Playing = "Sophisticated Lady" - Duke Ellington (America's greatest composer)

* I also discovered Vermont writer Joseph A. Citro's work (horror/suspense) which I highly recommend.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Blog Vacation

No posts for the next few days. Cindy and I will be driving to Vermont this week; my first time. (To go to Vermont, not to drive.) Hopefully some fun stuff to report.

Now Playing = Biograph - Bob Dylan
Now Reading = Looking for something to take on the trip...maybe Eternity and other Stories - Lucius Shepard

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Flightplan (Spoilers) and a Small Rant about the Current State of Filmmaking

I suppose I'll see just about any movie starring Jodie Foster. Don't get me wrong, I'm no John Hinckley. I just think Foster's a talented actor who usually picks good films, so it was inevitable that Cindy and I would check out Flightplan.

As the film opens, Kyle Pratt (Foster) is flying from Berlin with her six-year-old daughter and the body of her recently deceased husband; they're taking him to America for burial. Did I mention that Pratt is also an engineer of this particular jet? (Hmmm, I think that might be important...)

Pratt, her daughter, and about 400 other passengers board the plane without incident. Mom takes an innocent enough snooze and wakes up to discover her daughter missing. Pratt checks around and no one's seen her. In fact, no one saw her board the plane. Sure enough, she's also not on the flight manifests. "Mrs. Pratt, have you recently had a traumatic experience?" the captain asks.

"Why, yes, my husband just died."

"Hmmmm...could're IMAGINING your daughter was on this flight?"

And so it goes. Now you'd immediately think you've got the story figured out and you may be right. Here's the deal: (SPOILER ALERT from here on.) With this type of missing persons story, located in an extremely isolated area, there's only two choices: either Pratt is delusional or someone's nabbed the kid. It's either one or the other. If Pratt is delusional ("And it was all a dream...") the audience should demand their money back and never see another film by director Robert Schwentke. If she's not, then obviously someone on the plane is lying about not seeing the kid. It's just a matter of who did it.

The "who" is pretty easy to figure out. Go with your gut feeling. Foster's character should have been smart enough to do this; I mean, come on, she designs jet engines...that's almost rocket science.

Still, up until this point, Flightplan is an acceptable thriller. Just barely acceptable, but worth your time. But when the motivation for the kidnapping comes to light, plot and believability fall completely apart.

I didn't believe one iota of the motivation of the kidnappers. First of all, their elaborate scheme is far too much trouble. To pull off this kidnapping would require the kidnappers to spend more money and resources than they'd see from the kidnapping. It would also require an inordinate amount of time, research and just plain dumb luck. It's just not feasible or believable.

And by the way, the Arab terrorist suspicion subplot is unnecessary, pathetic and downright embarrassing. Completely unacceptable.

So what we've got for our $9.00 is a good performance from Foster, a couple of good dialogue exchanges, and a lot of views of the inside of a plane. Cheaper than a plane ticket to Cleveland, but also about as exciting.

So this brings me to my latest rant: (If you've spoken with me or read my blog, you've probably heard this already. Bear with me.) Why, why, WHY do we as moviegoers continue to put up with bad scriptwriting? If I'd read a novelization of the film, I'd have thrown it across the room. So would you, I'd bet. The major American studios obviously believe the moviegoing public either doesn't care about good writing or are idiots. But for the most part, we continue to accept illogic in our films (and television) that we would never accept in our novels.

I know someone's saying, "Well, you're talking about two different groups. Most of the people who see movies don't read novels." Okay, maybe so, but they can think. To have a film set up a premise then completely ignore that premise is illiterate filmmaking and I'm on a campaign to expose it for such. Be on the lookout for it. You don't have to look very far.

You really have to search for intelligent films these days. You can often find smart, good independent films and foreign films that don't follow the Hollywood "formula." Seek them out. When I discover them, I'll gladly point them out. And I'll continue to expose illiteracy in film. You're welcome. Glad to be of help.

Now Playing = "Visions of Johanna" - Bob Dylan
Now Reading = The Blue Girl - Charles de Lint