Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Long And Meandering Post About Writing

A warning.
What follows is a long and often meandering post about writing. I suspect people who write genre may find it of some interest. I'm not sure I'll be able to say the same for people who just want to pick up a book and have a good time. So with that caution...

When I hear writers interviewed, especially genre writers, they are inevitably asked the question, "Where do you get your ideas from?" The author generally smiles beatifically and mush-mouthes his or her way through a response which is guaranteed to cause scores of readers to bleed from their eyes.

Stephen King once described writing down a list of possible titles and sticking it to his refrigerator. He then went down the list, title by title, ripping each one from the sheet as he went along, and fashioning a story for each entry on the list. I've actually tried this, and I must clearly pronounce---I am no Stephen King.

However I do try to find inspiration from different sources..hoping something will spark an idea to file away for later use. To be honest, I don't do much story writing now unless it is in response to a "call for submission". Not that the story will sell, but nothing motivates like the lure of the marketplace.

I recently read an article in Scientific American. with the intriguing title: "Is The Universe Leaking Energy?"

Without even reading the piece, I jotted down three ideas to later develop into something. God bless writer's groups (hear that Gwen?) for helping me develop the ability to create from prompts. The ideas?

1) An expedition sent to the fringes of the known universe finds reality breaking down as the energy that keeps it together dissipates.
2) A group of scientists find that their experiments at the sub-atomic level are somehow bringing about enormous changes in the far flung universe.
3) In deep space a prison ship escapes and heads into a wormhole only to be spit out at the edge of the universe, where different rules of physics are at work, stranding them in a vast dead zone.

Now, note the above are quickly jotted ideas. They aren't stories. Stories require the presence of characters. All fiction, all good fiction, is about people, after all. Still, looking at this process, finding one idea which might have potential (I sort of liked the third idea), one can now begin to actually plan a story, putting personalities in conflict, presenting obstacles to be overcome, internally and externally.

And since we're on the process of writing, let me refer to a little read essay by H.P.Lovecraft who described his process of writing. (not how he received his ideas, but the actual process). Below is a short description of his steps, in his own words.

1) Prepare a synopsis or scenario of events in the order of their absolute occurence--not in the order of their narration. Describe with enough fulness to cover all vital points and motivate all incidents planned. Details, comments, and estimates of consequences are sometimes desirable in this temporary framework.

2. Prepare a second synopsis or scenario of events - this one in order of narration (not actual
occurrence), with ample fulness and detail, and with notes as to changing perspective, stresses,
and climax.  Let additions and alterations be made whenever suggested by anything in the for mulating process. (Mulating???? Only Lovecraft)

3. Write out the story - rapidly, fluently, and not too critically - following the second or narrative-order synopsis. Change incidents and plot whenever the developing process seems to suggest such change, never being bound by any previous design. Remove all possible superfluities - words, sentences, paragraphs, or whole episodes or elements - observing the usual precautions about the reconciling of all references (my bold face---this is economy, Rick take note)

4. Revise the entire text, paying attention to vocabulary, syntax, rhythm of prose, proportioning of parts, niceties of tone, grace and convincingness of transitions (scene to scene, slow and detailed action to rapid and sketchy time-covering action and vice versa... etc., etc., etc.), effectiveness of beginning, ending, climaxes, etc., dramatic suspense and interest, plausibility and atmosphere, and various other elements.

These four points are great. Sadly, Lovecraft was an author who hated characterization, and his stories suffered for it. Instead, he proudly proclaims in this very essay that he feels his main purpose was not necessarily to tell a story, but to create an atmosphere in his work, a feeling of the weird. It's a shame he didn't feel the need to do this through character and conflict, working on an arc which allowed the reader a satisfactory catharsis.

The late Isaac Asimov discussed writing in his memoir I,Asimov. Looking at his explanation of his process and Lovecraft's, I tend to veer closer to Asimov's in my beliefs. Asimov wrote:

"Of course, it also helps if you don't try to be too literary in your writing. If you try to turn out a prose poem...I have therefore deliberately cultivated a very plain style, even a colloquial one, which can be turned out rapidly and with which very little can go wrong. Of course, some critics, with crania that are more bone than mind, interpret this as my having "no style." If anyone thinks, however, that it is easy to write with absolute clarity and no frills, I recommend that he try it."

Somewhere an MFA grad is shuddering. Shudder on, because I leave you with some thoughts on writing from another author considered an important figure in science fiction, Robert Heinlein. Heinlein had five rules for writers...

Rule One: You Must Write
Rule Two: Finish What Your Start
Rule Three: You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order(Okay, I take exception with this. I'll hope he meant one shouldn't keep endlessly playing with one's work before sending it out. Sometimes a story is done, and an author should accept it as complete and move on. Too many people get caught up polishing, polishing, polishing...)
Rule Four: You Must Put Your Story on the Market

Rule Five: You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Shill Game

I wrote the below blog posting a couple years back. At the time, Fox had just given four million dollars to a writer whose books were hardly tearing it up on bestseller lists to write a vampire novel. What irritated me was that this was not a genre writer, and had no track record in genre. That meant Fox would have to market the hell out of him, creating a bestseller and convincing a genre audience this was a must-have. I haven't read the The Passage. It might be an incredible novel. However, knowing the manner of its creation and marketing, it is somewhat tainted for me.

If you want to find out how many cds sell, if you want to find out how a certain film does in terms of box office receipts, this information is fairly available. Yet why is it that if you want to know how many copies of a certain book title passed through retail, the information becomes a bit more difficult to obtain.

Don't believe me? Go ahead and try and do a search of a particular title to see how many copies were sold. You can ask the publisher, but that's no guarantee that information is going to be forthcoming.

Now you're probably thinking: what about bestsellers lists like the New York Times' survey? You'll notice no number of books sold is detailed there.

If you want information, you have to subscribe to Nielsen. You know, the same people who magically rate your television watching. Nielsen keeps track of retail sales but you have to pay. It will cost about eighty dollars for one title, with discounts available if you want to see more. And even then, the information doesn't take into account some of the smaller presses' distributions.

Why is this important to anyone writing? Because we're basically masochistic people and the more we hear about how difficult it is to succeed in our profession, the happier we are. And also, at some point a writer needs to ask: how many copies of a book sold is a sign of success. It helps to be able to track other writers and titles and do comparisons. It helps too when writing and marketing a title. Shelf lives are short and retailers are picky about what risks they want to take with their floor space. Scratch that. Retailers don't take chances.


A story is circulating through the literary world about a bidding war that recently went down for a writer's unfinished manuscript about vampires in an apocalyptic setting. A bidding war? Who was the author? Stephen King? Anne Rice? Laurell K. Hamilton?


The author's unfinished manuscript will be published under an unknown non-de-plume. And even if you did know the writer's name, chances are you haven't heard of him before nor read his prior work. The author is Jordon Ainsley (real name Justin Cronin). His prior work? A book you've probably not heard of: "Mary and O Neill", one of those literary pieces few people read which also manages to win the Pen/Hemingway Award. The what? And then there was also "The Summer Guest".

No history of genre writing. No track record with the fans.

And yet Mr. Cronin or Mr. Ainsley if you prefer, gets almost four million dollars for an unfinished manuscript in what will be the first of a vampire trilogy.

HEY!!!! FOX!!!!! If you want unfinished manuscripts and outlines, I got some for you!!! You want vampires? I'll give you vampires. If you want to read more about this go here.

The world of publishing remains a mystery to me. I guess my problem is that I see the world through left wing glasses. Maybe if I clean them and try putting on my "Capitalism Is Neat" basenball cap, it would make a little more sense.

Or not.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Modern Film Criticism: Part Two

Having just written a review for Charles Gramlich's Cold in The Light, I want to continue with the theme of an early post about reviews, initiated by SQT here. Essentially, what is the value of a review and why should we pay any attention to it?

Let's be honest, reviews can be and are bought and sold. When you have five major corporations dominating media, how can you trust a critic from The Wall Street Journal or any of the Fox networks discussing a film  produced by Fox? This was amazingly evident in the release of Avatar. Here was a brawling film with an anti-war, environmentalist theme to it, produced by a man who has openly called out several Fox personalities like Glenn Beck, and yet Fox's arsenal was amazingly silent. Had this film not been distributed by Fox, it would have been shredded by the Fox outlets. Don't believe me? Take a peek at how Fox dealt with Happy Feet.

Neil Cavuto, one of Fox's opinion folk said:
I saw this with my two little boys. What I found offensive — I don’t care what your stands are on the environment — is that they shove this in a kid’s movie. So you hear the penguins are starving and they’re starving because of mean old men, mean old companies, arctic fishing, a big taboo. And they’re foisting this on my kids who frankly more bored that it was a nearly two-hour movie. And they’re kids!

Now, compared to Avatar, Happy Feet was subtle in its underlying thematic content. However, Avatar, which killed at the box office, made a ton of money for Rupert Murdock. It would not surprise me to learn a memo went through the Fox offices cautioning all personnel to leave this film alone.

Using critics to protect the media and to maket titles is nothing new, but when you have so few corporations controlling what is out there, it's a dangerous thing.

Is Dancing With the Stars news? I ask because during the season, it was not unusal to find a five to seven minute segment on the local morning news affiliate about the previous night's show, treating it with the same enthusiasm and diligence that the crew would have given to local news coverage. What about American Idol? Or 24? Or Lost? While these shows are definitely powerhouses in popular culture, do you believe for a minute that the local news affiliates for the networks who produced both 24 or Lost didn't pollinate other shows to promote these television events?

Trusting a critic to give you an unbiased review is about you taking the time to do your homework. Reality is, you'll have to see what corporation that critic is aligned with, then read through past reviews and see which ones you believe best represented an honest assessment of a work of art.

When I critiqued Charles' work for Elder Signs Press's blog, I did so because I had just finished reading it and wanted to discuss the piece. I liked the work and expressed why I liked it. I have no affiliation with Invisible College Press, although I know Charles through online communication. While I enjoy his work, it didn't stop me from being slightly critical of how he began the book. However, in writing a review, it's important to give the reader a balanced understanding of what is good about a piece and who this piece is written for, and where it might fit in from a genre perspective (if that work is genre).

to be continued

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Urban Myths for the Casual Film Goer

Some of this is the stuff of urban legend, and it tends to be fun and helps boost DVD ratings. Most of the incidents described in the films below can be written off to coincidence ---  the law of probability as opposed to a supernatural influence.

What is a cursed film and when is it considered to be so?

 No fast rule applies to answer that question. Was The Exorcist cursed? What about Poltergeist?

Consider the anecdotal evidence paraded for evidence. The list below is for The Omen.
  • Scriptwriter David Seltzer's plane was struck by lightning.
  • Star Gregory Peck, in a separate incident, had his plane struck by lightning.
  • Director Richard Donner's hotel was bombed by the Provisional IRA .
  • Gregory Peck canceled his reservation on a flight. The plane he had originally chartered crashed, killing all on board (a group of Japanese businessmen).
  • A warden at the safari park used in the "crazy baboon" scene was attacked and killed by a lion the day after the crew left.
  • Rottweilers hired for the film attacked their trainers.
 I haven't researched the veracity of any of these claims. However, does the above, even if true, reflect anything out of the ordinary? A film is made over the course of two years and hundreds of people are often involved in production. Given those figures, isn't the likelihood of something terrible happening fairly hight?

Another old chestnut always cited when this topic is brought up around the digital campfire is Poltergeist (and when we speak of that film for urban legends purposes, we're including the two dreadful sequels). What could possibly happen to a crew doing a film about a family moving into a house over an old cemetery?

First and foremost, the incredibly tragic deaths of 12-year-old Heather Rourke (septic shock) and 22-year-old co-star Dominique Dunne (murder). The usual accidents and rumors pale beside the tragedy of the untimely deaths of these two young people.

Of course, there are some projects so cursed they can't even be made into film. Take a look at the novel A Confederacy of Dunces. This work by John Kennedy Toole was published ten years after the author's suicide. This wonderful piece of black humor is begging for an independent film treatment. Originally Harold Raimis saw the possibilities and cast John Belushi and Richard Pryor in key roles. Hmmm. When that fell through due to those actors' illnesses and subsequent deaths, comedic superstars Chris Farley and John Candy were considered. 

As recently as 2005, the film was recast by another film maker, Steven Soderbergh, with Will Ferrell in the lead role, along with Drew Barrymore, Mos Def, and Lily Tomlin (those who know this book should be salivating at this casting). That was back in 2005, there's been no progress on the production as of this time. Why? According to one source, Will Ferrell's response was "It's a mystery."

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Modern Film Criticism --- Part One

My friend SQT did a blog posting "Do Reviews Matter," which fired me up and got me thinking about the substance and context of the modern review and the role of the modern critic. As a former film critic myself, this is a subject which tends to make me over-react. So...the beginning of the following is from my comment to her then takes off on its own and will be the first of several postings on this topic.

The world of the modern critic began to change with Siskel and Ebert (I think I need to write a blog about this), whose show ran from 1975-1980 on PBS as Sneak Previews and then from 1980-1990 on ABC as At The Movies. Prior to their show, most reviewing was in print form and fairly removed from the motion picture audience.
Siskel and Ebert made reviewing a contact sport, and attracted a fairly impressive following.

People were able to identify with these two. They were so freakin' ordinary it hurt. It was like listening to your uncles argue on the sofa after a bad Thanksgiving dinner. Soon, people were emulating them, reviewing film with the eye of the common man....and infusing their response to film with an occasional term from critic-speak. Let's face it, prior to Siskel and Ebert, you never heard anyone casually reference cinematography or editing when discussing stepping out of a theater.

Perhaps another element that gave life to the critiques of Siskel and Ebert is that they removed the perception of "snootiness" from the practice of critiquing film. Prior to these two and several personalities who became their contemporaries, film critics had an elitist paradigm for what constituted significant cinema. Most filmgoers across America weren't going to stay awake for Ingmar Bergman, or for Francois Truffaut. Nor was the average American appreciative, no matter how well intended, of a film review which made them feel inadequate.

Siskel and Ebert gave us reviews which judged each film at two levels--first at its technical level, touching on those elements of film-making that we expect critics to pay attention to ( editing, score, cinematography, direction, etc), and then at a contextual level.

If these two watched a horror film, they would first note how it succeeded at craft, and then how it fared when compared to other films of its ilk. Fans of genre suddenly felt respected. Where previous critics often made genre enthusiasts feel puerile and embaressed for their likes and dislikes, Siskel and Ebert gave them respect. They weren't patronizing. Consider this excerpt from a review for John Carpenter's 1979 Halloween, which would have been easy to dismiss as a low budget film for teens.

“Halloween” is a visceral experience -- we aren't seeing the movie, we're having it happen to us. It's frightening. Maybe you don't like movies that are really scary: Then don't see this one."

In this written review, Ebert is contextualizing his statements. "Maybe you don't like movies that are really scary...." In other reviews, he would also contextualize the film with comments like, "this is strictly a film for fans of romantic comedy, and as such it stands up well alongside Notting Hill and Runaway Bride."

Although Siskel passed away from a brain tumor in 1999, Ebert is still writing. He is struggling with thyroid cancer and has had difficulty with numerous reconstructive surgeries over the last several years However his his wit and intelligence continue to burn brightly. He is still a major critic. Even his damned tweets are entertaining, and he tweets a lot! Warning though for those who may follow him on twitter, Ebert is a left winger who often makes stinging political comments.