Sunday, July 30, 2006

M. Night Shyamalan's new film

They Only Come Out at M. Night (Spoilers)

After weeks of bemoaning the fact that we never see any movies in the theater anymore, Cindy and I decided to treat ourselves to the new M. Night Shyamalan film The Lady in the Water.

Cindy and I enjoyed Shyamalan's first three films*, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, but were both hugely disappointed with The Village. But, we thought, everyone deserves a second chance.

You already know the plot (or if you don't, you can find it easily here), so let's talk about the topic I hear most people complaining about: Shyamalan's starring in his own film.

First of all, he's appeared in all of his films from The Sixth Sense on. (And I believe he appeared in Playing with Anger, but I haven't seen it.) Do moviegoers have a problem with a director appearing in his own films? If so, they should also have a problem with some of these people:

Charlie Chaplin
Orson Welles
Alfred Hitchcock
Woody Allen
Mel Brooks
John Huston
Roman Polanski
Clint Eastwood
Kevin Costner
Warren Beatty

And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

It could be, however, that the problem lies in Shyamalan's character in the movie: a writer whose book will greatly influence not only a future world leader, but millions of people. Is Shyamalan for real? Does he really think so highly of himself that his films are going to change the world? Maybe he's got a bigger head than I thought. If that's the problem people have with his appearance in the film, I can certainly understand it.

If that weren't enough, Shyamalan attacks (literally) movie critics in general, killing one off in the film. Had Shyamalan not appeared in the film (or maybe if it had been a cameo appearance), this jab at his critics would be funny, even a bit charming. But the best way to silence your critics is easy: make a good movie.

Has he done that? The Lady in the Water has a lot of problems and weaknesses, but for me, it still qualifies as a good movie. Sure, the movie's got problems: stereotypical characters, inconsistency in story and character, and the film requires a constant (and very unsteady) suspension of disbelief. There really aren't many surprises here. If you've seen even one of Shyamalan's films, you'll probably have a good idea what to expect. You might even be bored.

Yet in spite of everything I've mentioned, I enjoyed the film.


Yes, I enjoyed it. One of the reasons the film works for me is Shyamalan's obvious passion for the story. Yeah, it's got problems, but he believes in it. He wants you to walk out of the theatre feeling something. Remember how you felt after you saw The Sixth Sense? Probably because you cared about the characters. Shyamalan makes you care about Cleveland Heep (and so does Paul Giamatti in a very good performance), even if you could care less about Story (Bryce Dallas Howard).

And it's entertaining, despite the flaws. Maybe Shyamalan's passion was enough to override all my reasons why the movie shouldn't work.

We might find fault with the film, we might dismiss it by saying "It's just a fairy tale, it's just a bedtime story," but when it's all over, Shyamalan does something that not many filmmakers know how to do anymore: entertain us and more importantly, give us hope.

*Actually he directed two films before these, Playing with Anger (1992) and Wide Awake (1998).

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Word Explosion/New Stuff to Watch

Yesterday was one of those rare days that I didn't write anything - I was just too busy. But when I woke up this morning, it was like words were pouring out of me. I sat down and wrote 1600 words non-stop, finishing my new story (Well, a first draft of it anyway) at 6,500 words. Don't know why, but sometimes it happens that way. It's better not to question these things...


My good friend Kelly has several great posts about upcoming films and books on his blog. I can always count on Kelly to recommend good stuff to read and watch. It seems we're often on the same wavelength. A few weeks ago, he recommended the series Carnivale to me, so I had NetFlix send Season One, Disc One.

I have to admit, the first episode was interesting, but didn't really have me doing backflips. But then I watched the second episode and that sucker really kicked the doors in! Now I'm hooked. (The worst thing about the DVDs - there's only two episodes per disc.) If you haven't seen it, Carnivale is about a traveling carnival in 1934 and the strange young man who joins them after the death of his mother, but that only scratches the surface. It's sort of a cross between The Grapes of Wrath and David Lynch. Somewhat unconventional storytelling, but very effective. I highly ditto Kelly's recommendation. Check it out.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Word Count/Get In, Get Out/Mix It Up

The last few days have been fairly productive. I wrote about 1500 words yesterday on a new "short" story and added about 750 words this morning. It's still early in the revision process of my YA novel (Chapter Three of twenty), but it's going well - can't complain.

After experimenting with my schedule, mornings seem to be the best time to work on new stuff. I'm one of those weird people that really doesn't mind getting up early, as long as I've gotten around six hours of sleep. (And as long as there's coffee.) Lately I've been getting up around 5:30, having breakfast/reading, then starting to write about 6:00, usually for a couple of hours. Again, new stuff first, then revising if I have time, using the evenings if I don't.


Watched a French film (via Netflix) this weekend called Cache (Hidden). I liked it quite a bit, but Cindy didn't care for it. In the extras, director Michael Haneke talked about getting in and out of scenes. He likes to skip all (or most of) the introductory elements that usually begin scenes, the "Hello, how are you" elements, getting to the meat of each scene. Once you're in the scene, let the scene do what it needs to do and get out quickly. Move in quickly, move out quickly.

(The odd thing is that Haneke, due to the subject of the film, breaks his own rule, but he has a good reason. In the very first scene, it seems absolutely nothing happens. Just keep watching. The anthesis of the "Get In, Get Out" rule provides an interesting contrast.)

I haven't seen any of Haneke's other films, but the technique works very well in Cache*. There's a definite difference in telling a story in a visual medium like film and telling one in prose, but I understand what Haneke is saying. I'm sure there's a way I can trim down the unnecessary and mundane in my own work and I'm certainly going to look for ways to do it. I think part of that is realizing that your reading audience is smart. (Not that your film audience isn't.) You give them credit for knowing what's going on without spelling it out for them, but scenes have to have a logical progression, even if they're not linear, even if you have to read it a couple (or more) times. What's there has to work, it has to be comprehensible. Anyway, Haneke's comment is making me analyze my own writing to a greater degree, which is always a good thing.

Maybe one day I'll talk a little bit (or invite you to do so) about the similarities and differences of the process of developing works in the arts. It's something I think about quite a bit, having spent many years in the music world and now kicking around in the writing world. Like the cute little overlapping circles in your first algebra book, the arts have lots of things in common and it can be interesting to look at those similarities. And you never know when you'll find something you can use.


* I'm not going to tell you anything about the plot and I encourage you not to read about it. I will say that I was on the edge of my seat for two hours and I think you will be too.

Today's Short Story = "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad" - M.R. James

Thursday, July 20, 2006

A Few Thoughts on Horror

I consider myself very much a horror neophyte. Up until about a year ago, I read very little from the genre, but after being introduced to several writers, novels and stories, horror has taken up a good chunk of my reading. During the past year, I was delighted to discover two reference books edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman: Horror: 100 Best Books (1988) and Horror: Another 100 Best Books (2005).

Horror: 100 Best Books (hereafter referred to as 100) contains essays by authors and professionals in the field, citing their choices for the genre's best offerings. The book moves in chronological publication order, starting with Christopher Marloe's The Tragical History of Dr Faustus (ca. 1592) and ending with Ramsey Campbell's Dark Feasts (1987). Each entry provides a summary of the book and other interesting information, including whether (or how many times) the work has been adapted to film (and how successfully), after which follows the contributor's essay.

The majority of the essays offer insights into what makes the work classifiable as horror, sometimes surprisingly so. (Can you really consider Northanger Abbey a horror novel?) Most of the essays are quite good, disappointing only when the writer takes a trip down nostalgia lane ("I remember this story scaring the pee out of me...I was just a little tot when my mom gave me this novel, hoping to keep me off the streets" etc.), practically ignoring the attributes of the work at hand. But for the most part, readers will get a good glimpse into what the book is about and whether they should seek it out.

A word of warning: Some contributors give away too much. I don't know if I'll ever be able to forgive Malcolm Edwards for ruining the ending of Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory in 100.

With 100, the essayist's name isn't given until the end, which may not come for two or three pages. At first I was a little miffed at the practice of omitting the contributor's identity until the end, but it's probably a good idea. After all, if you're a writer, you might be negatively influenced by seeing Joe Schmoe's name at the top of the essay – the same Joe Schmoe who has rejected all 47 of your "Stinky the Vampire Boy" stories for his magazine.

My copy is a revised 1998 edition with a List of Recommended Reading in the back, followed by notes on the contributors.

With Another 100, you get the same basic format, except the contributor's name is placed before the book selected, (i.e. "Robert Silverberg on 'The Revenger's Tragedy' by Cyril Tourneur") with the contributor's biographical info immediately following the essay. The writing is generally very good and the excursions seem more limited than in 100. The List of Recommended Reading returns in Another 100, but also included is a Selected Webliography devoted to authors, contributors and titles.

One infuriating aspect of both books (which is no fault of the book or its editors) lies in the availability of the works chosen. Most of the newer books (and even some older titles in reprints) are readily available, but several of the selections were either published in limited editions or by a small press with low print runs (Jumbee and Other Uncanny Tales by Henry S. Whitehead an example of the former, Manly Wade Wellman's Worse Things Waiting the latter) or are simply too expensive. (The lowest priced edition of Michael Marshall Smith's More Tomorrow and Other Stories on is an ex-library edition going for $99.91. Bob Leman's 2003 book Feesters in the Lake will run you $127.25.) Still, reading copies of many of the 200 titles can be purchased on the cheap.

I noticed that several of the books in 100's Recommended Reading appendix were chosen for essay status in Another 100. I suppose you could look at that in a couple of ways. The obvious choices for the first book (Frankenstein, Dracula, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, etc.) open up the door for some overlooked titles to appear in Another 100. But does that mean lesser works might be considered for future volumes? I don't think so. It certainly seems obvious to me, pretty much a rank beginner, that the genre has more than adequate depth and richness for future volumes.

I was talking to my friend Kelly about the possibility and frequency of future volumes. Another 100 was published seventeen years after 100. I hope the interval between Another 100 and Yet Another 100 (or whatever Jones/Newman choose to call it) will be less than seventeen years. I'd love to see a volume every ten years and I think (and hope) that that is workable. In the meantime, we have summations of each year from Ellen Datlow and Stephen Jones (The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror and The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, respectively), as well as others.

In the meantime, you've got 200 books to get through.


Today's Short Story = "The Rapid Advance of Sorrow" by Theodora Goss from In the Forest of Forgetting

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Closer to a Million

Someone - I want to say it was Ray Bradbury - once said that in order to become a good writer, you have to pay your dues with about a million or so words. It's a pretty famous statement and lately I've seen other people blog about their own numbers. I figure I've still got quite a bit of work to do. A rough estimate of everything I've written the past few years comes to about 300,000 words, which is not very much. (This doesn't count my books of notes - freewrites, ideas and sketches, about seven or eight full notebooks.) I have written two novels, one a 60K YA novel (now revising), but most of my short stories are 5,000 words or less.

So no matter how you slice it, I've still got some dues to pay, which is fine. Part of the fun of the whole thing for me is the process of discovery, of taking risks, pushing yourself, challenging yourself. And seeking/embracing those voices of encouragement.

While looking for the million word quote in Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing, I came across several other quotes:

"For the first thing a writer should be is - excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiamsms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches..."

"Who are your friends? Do they believe in you? Or do they stunt your growth with ridicule and disbelief? If the latter, you haven't friends. Go find some."

" stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow."

"Self-consciousness is the enemy of all art, be it acting, writing, painting, or living itself, which is the greatest art of all."

Bradbury also got into the habit of writing and sending out a short story each week. He did this for ten years. (Even if he took two-week vacations, 500 stories in ten years ain't too bad.) I think Jay Lake has been following this method for several years as well.

There's a lot packed into these 158 pages. It's been a couple of years since I read the book; maybe I'll read it again this week.


600 words this morning on a new horror story.

Today's Short Story = "Lost Hearts" - M.R. James from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Sunday, July 16, 2006

My niece Sarah's baptism was Saturday. Later that afternoon I read to her from F&SF and as you can see, she insisted on devouring the magazine. Girl's off to a good start.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Just arrived!
Received my copy of the new Theodora Goss collection, In the Forest of Forgetting, a release I've been looking forward to for quite some time.


Finished Peter Straub's lost boy lost girl last night. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Straub uses several POVs and takes a non-linear approach which is perfect for this tale. Obviously written with many layers in mind, this is a book I'll want to read again before the year's out. Highly recommended - Definitely good enough to buy.


Nearly finished with the first draft of a new horror story involving a motel, a corpse and a guy named Fred. Something for everyone.


Saw a sign in a convenience store the other day: Open 25 Hours. It sure didn't look like Bixby, Oklahoma....

Today's Short Story = "Small Magic" - Jay Lake from the June Weird Tales

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Our first stop...

...was here.

Maid of the Mist boat ride - a must!


Just before The Maid of the Mist boat ride. (We're still dry.)

Monday, July 10, 2006


Cindy and I had an absolutely wonderful time at Niagara Falls, a trip I highly recommend. The trip took about twelve hours on the way up, but we stopped quite a bit. One of those stops was at the Yuengling Brewery (America's oldest existing brewery) in Pottsville, PA, where of course, had a few samples. (It would be un-American not to.)

We stayed on the Canadian side of the Falls for most of the trip, with one day on the American side. Our very first stop was for breakfast. There was only one choice: The Flying Saucer Restaurant, where I had the E.T. Special – three eggs, bacon, sausage, home fries, toast and pancakes. (E.T. wasn't too slim, if you recall.)

For the first two days, Cindy and I checked out most of the touristy stuff on the Canadian side: The Journey Behind the Falls is okay – you travel down an elevator to tunnels that let you see a fair amount of the falls and feel some of the mist. You don't really get that close to the water, but the sound of it from the tunnels is pretty impressive. Go on this first – you'll be disappointed if you do anything else before The Journey.

The Skylon Tower elevator ride gives you a great overhead view of the Falls. Highly recommended, unless you're afraid of heights (which I am – but I still enjoyed it).

You'll have to go to the American side for the Cave of the Winds tour, and you should. You'll get drenched, but it's worth it. (For this, the Journey, and The Maid of the Mist, you'll receive a poncho, but don't count on it to help much on the Cave tour.) The Cave of the Winds is as close as you can get to experiencing the Falls without diving in.

You can take the Maid of the Mist boat ride from either the American or Canadian side. (We took the American side since the line was much shorter.) Highly recommended.

There's tons of other stuff, but if you've read this far, you're either already interested in going yourself or bored stiff. Anyway, we had a great time. (Pictures to follow, if I can get Blogger to cooperate.)


Reading material for the trip? Since my XM Radio wouldn't work in Cindy's car, we thought we'd read to each other during the drive. We made it most of the way through Prince Caspian (Chronicles of Narnia), one of the few books we could agree on. I read about half of Horror: 100 Best Books and the first hundred pages of lost boy lost girl by Peter Straub which is so far excellent. Magazines? Nada.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Just finished

Dad's Birthday/The Book Thief/Vacation

First of all, a Happy Birthday to my dad who turns 77 today! His secrets to good health: lots of fresh air, working in the garden, catfish from his own pond, and daily meetings with his buddies at the coffee shop. Happy Birthday, Dad!


I finished The Book Thief last night. This is one of those YA titles that appeals to both kids and adults. It's also a book that's received a lot of media attention (or hype, if you will). The novel is by Marcus Zusak, a 30-year-old Australian writer, and regardless of what you hear, this is not his first novel. Apparently the book was first marketed in Australia as adult fiction, but in the U.S., it's being marketed and sold as a YA.

The story takes place in Nazi Germany. After the death of her young brother, nine-year-old Liesel Meminger has been sent by her mother to live in a foster home in a small town near Munich. As you might expect, Liesel has trouble adjusting to her new foster parents, new friends, and the memories of the family that has been taken away from her. Liesel quickly develops friendships with three very different people: her foster father Hans, a young Jewish man hiding out in their basement, and a boy named Rudy who idolizes Jesse Owens.

Although Liesel and Rudy are a part of Hitler Youth, they both rebel against Hitler's authority – Rudy by acts of childish defiance and food theft, Liesel by stealing books. Of course there's much more to The Book Thief than stealing books: subplots abound dealing with war, death, loyalty, family, love, fear - all of which readers have seen before. But what makes Zusak's novel unique is its narrator: Death.

The use of Death as a narrator produces some of the book's strongest and weakest elements. Death's point-of-view helps Zusak to write with remarkable restraint, avoiding scenes that would typically come across as heavy-handed and sentimental. While it knows what's going to happen to each character (and when), there are many things Death doesn't understand about humans. It attempts to relate human emotions to the colors of the weather, which is effective, if somewhat overdone.

Death also has a tendency (not unlike the Lemony Snicket books) to frequently interrupt the story with word definitions and asides in bold type, leaving no doubt that this is a YA story in which readers should have things spelled out for them. Also much of the book is written in short, sparse sentences, which, when added to the narrator's many excursions, tends to deprive the novel of another level of depth that it should have had. Possibly I'm being too picky. The novel works quite well and is frequently gripping, but I think it could have been superb.

It seems that many readers are ready to immediately elevate The Book Thief onto a list of classic children's/YA literature. I'm not sure I'm ready to praise the novel that highly, but I did enjoy it and have no reservations about recommending it. Good enough to buy.

Cindy and I will be on vacation for the next several days, so everyone have a great 4th and beyond!

Sunday, July 02, 2006


I spend far too much time dwelling on what most would call "trivial" issues, such as what books to bring on our upcoming vacation to Niagara Falls. Clarion bud Trent had similar issues awhile back and now the shoe is on the other foot. (Literally. As you can see, packing is not going too well.)

As I mentioned to Mr. H, I usually take a novel, a non-fiction and a magazine. Even with those limited categories, I'm having trouble deciding:

Fiction choices:

The Crying of Lot 49 - Thomas Pynchon
lost boy lost girl - Peter Straub
They Thirst - Robert R. McCammon
American Psycho - Bret Easton Ellis
Perfect Circle - Sean Stewart
The Night Class - Tom Piccirilli
The Basic Kafka - Franz Kafka (Okay, so it's not a novel...)
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary - M.R. James (Yeah, yeah, not a novel either...)

Non-Fiction choices:

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets - David Simon
Horror: 100 Best Books - Stephen Jones, Kim Newman, eds.


July Asimov's (one story read)
July F&SF (three stories read)
June Weird Tales (one story read)

There it is. Gotta decide soon. Vote early, vote often.