Apr 30, 2011

What can Billie Holiday teach you about writing?

Photo by Carl van Vechten

Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was an American jazz singer and songwriter. Holiday cut her first record at the age of 18. She’d been singing professionally for a couple of years.

Billie was tough on the outside, sweet on the inside. The first tunes she ever performed were songs she learned in a brothel.

When Lady Day parts her lips to weave those whisky-laced melodies of hers, those coffee-stained crescendos, you can feel the hurt and the sorrow she’s been through. But there’s more. You share in a fleeting, perishable moment when a human being rose above that sorrow and shaped it into song.  

So, what can Billie Holiday teach you about writing a story, novel or play?

Apr 29, 2011

The Times and Trials of Remorse Brown

Who in their right mind would name a daughter Remorse? Although that wasn’t so bad; her big brother was called Regret, which is a sorry name for a man.

The old thief espied their shack from afar, and counted his blessings.  

The Pixies, the Hermit and the Crescent Moon

They flutter just out of reach, these laughing butterflies. Simeon covers his ears, but the laughter echoes in his skull.
“Come play with us, old man,” the naked creatures tease. “We have until dawn.”
“No,” Simeon snarls between his teeth.
“Come ride the midnight horses,” they say. Voices like glass.   

Apr 27, 2011

Excuse Me - Which Way to the North Pole?

Weston hopped off the embankment onto the brown, wet sand. He cast off his shoes and his shirt and dove headfirst into the green waves. Salt in his eyes, salt in his mouth. Underwater, he bumped into something. A soft kind of something, with a questing snout.

The Worm and the Fire

Orban held his breath as the workmen hauled up the cannon from the tomb of sand and clay where it was conceived. Away to the West, hooves pounded the soil. Outriders? Back so soon?  

A whistling shadow tore through the air and burrowed into a man’s shoulder.  

Apr 26, 2011

The Drunkard's Temple

“No,” the man grunted, sticking the red eraser up his left nostril. “You can’t have my baby.” Jenna recoiled in disgust, but she couldn’t just up and leave. Blood ran from a grinning cut on the drunkard’s temple.
“Jenny-Bee,” he mumbled.
“My grandfather called me that. How do you--?”

Apr 23, 2011

What can Gary Oldman teach you about writing?

Photo by Fred Huntley

Craft: From Old English cræft, strength or skill; cognate with German Kraft, power.

Gary Oldman (b. 1953) is an English actor, filmmaker and musician. As Richard Covington once wrote, he “plays vampires and sadists, suicidal punks and assorted fiends and weirdos.”

I know two and only two actors who can play an obnoxious, egocentric dickwad and really make it work. One of them is Robert Carlyle, who upstaged everybody else in Trainspotting whenever he showed up on screen. The other one is Gary Oldman. He portrayed Sid Vicious as the alienated, directionless butthead he probably was (Sid and Nancy, 1986).

He also makes for a great Jim Gordon (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and soon The Dark Knight Rises).

At first, Gordon seems to be an atypical role for Gary Oldman to play. Jim Gordon is no Sid Vicious, Sirius Black or Dracula; Gordon’s freakishness is not immediately apparent, but it’s there. Especially on the classic Year One, he’s the one clean cop in Gotham. So he is a bit of a closet freak, I suppose. The white sheep among the black.

Oldman doesn’t just have talent, he’s got craft.
And a large helping of sass to go with that talent. Gary once told an interviewer: “When you go to a cinema, you should come out like having a rocket up your ass.

On that very interview, the words “explosiveness”, “fire” and “furnace” get bandied about a lot. The actor defines himself in no ambiguous terms.

So, what can Gary Oldman teach you about writing a novel, story, or play?

Apr 22, 2011

Barracuda vs. the Black Triangles

Chenille was trying to jump out of the car as we barreled down the dirt road, and Costa was screaming at the top of his lungs, clawing at his arms and belly. I couldn’t see any spiders, but the black triangle in the sky, yeah, that kind of worried me.  

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In case you're wondering, this is the Barracuda.

Time Travel, Me Hearties!

The moment the guy with the stuffed parrot on his shoulder walked into the store, I knew he was trouble. “My name is Captain Fat,” he said. “I do a little o’ this, a little o’ that.” He pointed a rusted flintlock pistol at me. “Gimme all your money.”

Apr 20, 2011

There Is No Next-Door Neighbor

Adele shot her son a quizzical glance, wondering where he got the purple stain on his shirt. “Where were you all morning?” she asked.
“Playing with the boy next door.”
“Mrs. Buchner’s son?”
He shook his chestnut curls.
“Naw, the one who lives on 1013.”
Adele forgot to breathe.

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This prompt was inspired by a Retronaut photo essay on abandoned houses in Detroit, which I found thanks to Paul Flanigan, who runs the Experiate blog. Paul is adept at digging up fresh, unexpected stuff scattered across the four corners of the Intertubes.

Maybe You Shouldn't Have Stopped at Mr. Chong's

Getting clubbed with a road cone was not on Phil’s agenda that morning.

The brunette in a blue bikini dove into a hundred identical pools, her young arrow-like body piercing the water. “Now that is quality,” Phil muttered before the hundred TVs mounted on the wall.
“Hey, asshole!” someone shouted. 

Apr 18, 2011

3 Gutsy Opening Lines from 3 Outstanding Novels

How do you convince people your story is not a total waste of their time? What's the first thing you need to do?

You must provide a strong opening. The first lines of a story must create what Dan & Chip Heath called a ‘knowledge gap’ in their 2007 book, Made to Stick. The knowledge gap emerges when people realize there’s something they don’t know.

Put simply, you have to make the reader ask, “What the hell is going on?”

You have to make the reader understand that she’s about to immerse herself in a world that is full of promise and mystery.

One way to do that is to take something she sees as normal and turn it on its head. In short, you need to engage her in a subversive game right from the start, by defying the commonplace.

So let’s take a look at three great examples of opening lines that do just that. Approach them with caution, though; these babies pack a punch.

Apr 16, 2011

What can Thelonious Monk teach you about writing?

Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) was an American jazz pianist, composer and natty dresser. He only wrote about 70 songs, and yet he’s the second most recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington, who wrote a thousand.

Monk, the natty dresser.
Photo by William P. Gottlieb


Thelonious moved to NY with his mother, brother and sister at the age of four. Music was everywhere. He started playing rent parties at an early age, making three dollars a night. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but it was almost $40 if you adjust for inflation. Not too bad.

Although he went to a very good high school, he dropped out to take a piano gig on a faith healer’s traveling revival. This was around 1935. Two years later, Monk left the faith healer’s road show and formed his first quartet. They played a number of small bars and clubs for a while.

Bit by bit, Thelonious made a name for himself. In 1941, Kenny Clarke hired Monk as house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse, in Harlem. Minton’s is the cradle of bebop.

At first, Monk’s compositions were deemed too difficult for the general public. Even other musicians didn’t know what to make of them. He struggled in obscurity for years, but he kept chasing his bliss.

Monk was a jazz prophet and a visionary. Sometimes, he would get up from the piano stool as the band played and he’d do a little dance. He would spin clockwise like a whirling dervish. But mostly he found rapture through a black & white keyboard, and brought it to others.

So, what can Thelonious Monk teach you about writing a story, novel or play?

Apr 15, 2011

Your Black Magic is a Bit Smelly

Pass the salt. And the knife. And the severed head. Are you ready? Good. Step into the circle. Wait, you've forgotten the censer. Do you call that a triangle? I do know for a fact geometry is one of his strong suits. Where’s the rue? Be still. He’s taking shape.  

Do Polish Doctors Like Hornets?

With halting steps, opening and closing his eyelids with forefinger and thumb, Dr. Kalinowski approached the man in a blue tracksuit that sat on the curb. A yellow jacket crawled over the greasy fork at the man’s feet, balling up tiny scraps of food with its cookie-cutter mandibles.

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P.S.: I see Dr. Kalinowski as a skinny, retired cardiologist with obsessive-compulsive disorder who collects miniature Betty Boop tea sets. I have the distinct feeling his father was a taxidermist and his mother was a divorce lawyer. 

Apr 13, 2011

Out of this Sandy Grave

The dune extended dwindling arms around the crumbling airplane, like a hungry horseshoe made of sand. Pettibone climbed up one of those arms and stood on the tawny crest of the dune, a traffic jam of questions in his mind.

Night Knows Me, and Nobody Else

All the petrified trees looked the same to Bill and Martine. “We have to check every single one,” said Bill, scratching the back of his head. Martine tugged at his sleeve and made a beeline for the nearest tree. “Get moving,” she hollered, “the Blossom will be gone by morning.” 

Apr 9, 2011

What can David Lynch teach you about writing?

David Lynch (b. 1946) is an American filmmaker.

He paid for the first film he cobbled together. It was a video installation, of sorts, and ran for just a few minutes. Though it cost him under a thousand dollars, he was afraid he’d never make it in the movie world -- movies were just too expensive to make. At first it didn’t occur to him that filmmakers look to outside sources for funding. Fortunately, he didn’t let money worries stop him.

Movies are indeed expensive to make. Paintings, not so much. David Lynch studied painting, and the lessons he learned now pervade his cinematic work. Just think of Blue Velvet, Fire Walk with Me or Mulholland Drive. They burst with shades of sensuous, menacing red. Darkness invades every nook and cranny, and deep, saturated colors are forced to work overtime. Actors are deployed much like characters in a Balthusian composition: it’s not always easy to figure out what they’re up to, or the mysterious, wanton forces that drive them.

Lynch is a master storyteller that has worked very, very hard to develop a voice he can truly call his own.

So, what can David Lynch teach you about writing a novel, story or play?

Apr 8, 2011

The Wrong Meridian

Marcus placed the identical tiles side by side on his desk. One was two thousand years old. The other had to be a fake. 

The black phone rang twice before he answered. A robotic voice on the other side droned into his ear.
“41. 25. 40. 77. Bridge. Twenty-six hours.”

Dragoon Gulch

I don’t know how she snuck up on me. Grumpy never made a sound, and that dog barks at everything. Chipmunks, beetles, trees. Everything.  

“Please,” she said, touching my elbow. Her fingers were cold. “Help me find my daughter.”

Her dress was too fancy for the Dragoon Gulch trail. 

Apr 6, 2011

Silence & a Broken Spear

He shambled forward, clutching a broken spear. The swamp was much too still. Though his wound called, no insects came. Nothing but his motion disturbed the murky waters. The plants, soaking up the last rays of the sun, seemed to mock him. 

The Firebird's Not Fast Enough

“Retard, retard, retard,” Colby growled, pinching his nose. There was blood all over the back seat and the Firebird roared as the sirens wailed and the red-blue lights skimmed over the Firebird’s tail. From the shotgun seat, Hawkins bellowed, “How was I to know they weren't carrying money?”

Apr 5, 2011

What can Margaret Atwood teach you about publishing? MVP#1

(Monthly Video Pick #1)

Margaret Atwood (b. 1939) is a Canadian writer. She’s tried her hand at romance, historical fiction, dystopian fiction, and science fiction. My personal favorite is the novel “Surfacing,” which examines how far you can push a human being’s identity before it plunges into animalistic psychosis.

In this video, she reflects on the new tools available to writers and publishers, on how expectations are shifting and the whole writing-publishing kerfuffle can now be turned on its head by the savvy writer.

Oh, and every so often, she’ll bring up the subject of cheese sandwiches. They’re more important than you think.






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The Monthly Video Pick (MVP) is posted on the 5th of every month. I will trawl YouTube for great, often overlooked videos on writers, by writers, for writers, and feature them here. My personal tastes will always be a factor. I can’t promise you will enjoy these videos, but I sure hope so.    

Apr 2, 2011

What can John Zorn teach you about writing?

"Okay, I'll try to write a hundred tunes in a year."


Zorn (b. 1953) is an American avant-garde composer. On the average Zorn record, bebop mates with surf rock and death metal, plunging the listener into an acid bath of sound. It’s like speed-reading ten books in forty seconds. Except half the books are in languages that haven’t been invented yet.

And then there are the classical pieces, music to summon demons by. Not that you will notice the demonic qualities right away -- the denizens of the night-side lurk in the spaces between notes, shaping them like invisible craftsmen, midwives to ecstasy. Pick up “Moloch,” issued 2006 on Zorn’s own label, Tzadik, and you’ll see what I mean.

I’ll tell you why I like Zorn’s music. It’s all-embracing. It demolishes apparent contradictions, so the alchemical marriage of the opposites happens time and again. It paints a sonic landscape of extremes. Zorn is a purple cow.

So. What can John Zorn teach you about writing a story, novel or play?

Apr 1, 2011

Bleed and Conquer

Bitter winds howled over the salt pan just before dawn. Zora held the bucket close to her chest, trying not to spill what little water she had left. She couldn’t go back to the river now. The sun would come up and awake the hunters, the laughing ones.

Waking Up in a Room You Don't Know

Fabian inspected the spotless walls, but couldn’t find a door. By the far corner, to his left, there was a three-legged stool that reeked of disinfectant. Fabian approached it. On the worn velvet seat lay a bloody human molar.