May 28, 2011

What can Orson Welles teach you about writing?

Orson Welles as Macbeth.

“I passionately hate the idea of being with it; I think an artist has always to be out of step with his time.” – Orson Welles

Orson Welles (1915-1985) was an American actor, producer and director, born to a pianist and an inventor.

One of the amazing things about Orson Welles as a director is that so many of his movies were commercial failures. Citizen Kane (1941), arguably his most popular film, lost RKO $150,000. That’s around US$2,200,000 adjusted for inflation.

Yet critics lavished high praise upon the director’s work. When you spend some time paying attention to films like Macbeth, Touch of Evil or The Trial, to name a few, you understand why this is so. Lighting design, photography, camera angles – he got these things, just like Kubrick did. And he was wise enough to surround himself with a brilliant crew.

Orson Welles also figures, if rather briefly, in the annals of science fiction.
  • His dramatic War of the Worlds radio broadcast caused a bit of a stir, although rumors of widespread panic were mostly spun by the press over the following two days.
  • He was asked to voice Darth Vader in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, but preferred not to.
  • George Lucas intended to cast him as OMM’s voice in THX1138, but changed his mind and picked James Wheaton for the role.

Welles once told Peter Bogdanovitch he was so good at fortune-telling that he scared himself. After a short stint as a fraudster, his morals kicked in. Orson himself tells the tale right here.

So, what can Orson Welles teach you about writing a novel, a piece of flash fiction, or a stage play?

May 27, 2011

The Underground Cantina

Casablanca was a swarm of golden fireflies and Buchner looked out the window because his ‘wife’ tugged at his sleeve and said how pretty. She played her role all too well. Buchner grunted an acknowledgment, leaned back in his seat and finished the apple juice. Discipline is key.   

Two Kinds of Silver, Two Kinds of Lead

The machine guns are real. Like the star on the Foreman’s collar. He nods, and two guards lock the iron door.

The prisoners sit, two to a computer. One mans the mouse, another the keyboard. Dozens of starting screens fill their eyes with foreign colors.

The Foreman shouts, ‘new game.’ 

May 26, 2011

5 Things You Don't Want in Your Novel, pt. 1

Ixnay on the Shakespeare (Thy Cacophonous Arias Do Rupture Mine Ears)

My lord this, my lady that.
Thy and Thine, Thee and Thou.
You think these words are pretty, so your characters use them a lot. A hell of a lot.

Enlighten me. What century are you living in?

Nowadays people don’t use so much as misuse old pronouns and forms of address. There’s a Lord of the Rings fan movie where everyone gets called ‘my lord/lady’ at some point. Much more often than in the Peter Jackson films.
Look at all those lords and ladies, slumming it in the caves.
As far as I can remember, no animals are portrayed; otherwise they might be addressed in a very ceremonious manner. ‘Come, my lord piglet, thy repast is served. Tarry not ’pon yonder puddle and draw nearer to the trough, that thou may’st partake of the meal.’

Couple the attempt to write lofty, archaic-sounding speech with early twenty-first century diction, and you’ve got yourself quite a salad.

May 25, 2011

Behind the Red Barn, There is No Right and Wrong

That’s a big cleaver. Grandpa got all the chickens to stand in line and hop onto the stump when it is their turn. He whistles, the line moves forward, chunk! Another head gone.

“Mommy, what’s grandpa doing?”
“Don’t ask, honey.”
“How come the chickens all do what he wants?”

The New Death of Cool

Charisa crouched in the bushes, nursing the black rifle and shivering in the cold. The hipsters trickled out of the Rose & Champion, clucking like drunk pheasants. Finally, the target stumbled across the threshold, hair like a dandelion ruffled by the 9-o’clock breeze. 


I am indebted to Dino Dogan and this post at DIYBlogger for the wonderful name, 'Charisa Panzarella.' It was just too good not to use.

May 24, 2011

You Don't Eat Panzarellas for Breakfast

Charisa Panzarella snorted like a fighting bull. There were 5 boxes of dusty files blocking her sunlight.
“Do I look like a mountain climber to you, sir?” she asked Chris Gropius, her manager.
“No,” he sighed.  
“Then why’d you drop Mount Shasta on my desk?” 


I am indebted to Dino Dogan and this post at DIYBlogger for the wonderful name, 'Charisa Panzarella.' It was just too good not to use.

May 22, 2011

Don't waste another minute! Competition at

It's no secret that I find a great idea for a writer's community, and I know for a fact that it's run by passionate people who've given it their all.

Now they're launching a competition where the first 75 uploaders to their beta service get a shot at two great prizes. The first one is a cash prize (around £500/$800), the other one is a report from an established consultancy, Cornerstones.

And then there's the download competition, but you'll have to scoot on over to to find out more.

Seriously, don't waste time. Go. Now.

And have a great Sunday, everyone.

May 21, 2011

What can Stanley Kubrick teach you about writing?

“If the work is good, what you say about it is usually irrelevant.” – Stanley Kubrick 

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) was an American film director who hated school. He was 19 when he first read a book for pleasure. He never attended college.

Make no mistake. For all that he despised schoolwork, Stanley Kubrick was gifted with a piercing, unsentimental mind.
He was a dedicated chess player from age twelve. As a young man, he played games for quarters in Manhattan chess clubs. Meanwhile he pursued photography, landing a position with Look magazine in 1946.

A friend of his, Alex Singer, talked him into making documentaries. The lure of filmmaking must have been irresistible; spurred by the success of his first documentary, Day of the Fight, Kubrick quit his job with Look magazine to work on a second film, then a third.

Stanley Kubrick, they say, was a control freak. The young director would tussle with cameramen, lighting crews and writers. He’d lock horns with major stars like Kirk Douglas. Alex Singer’s phrase, ‘icy nerve,’ seems to be an apt description of the man who gave us Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange or Barry Lyndon.

So, what can Stanley Kubrick teach you about writing a novel, story or play?

May 20, 2011

Ghosts of the Count Room

Samson counted bills until he came to the brown one. Now that color was seven shades of wrong. He smoothed out the crinkly paper with his thumb and held it up to the light, challenging the banknote to give up its secrets. 

The CCTV camera shifted.

No Sea for A Gentleman

Panicking, Admiral De Keizer flung his pipe overboard. Swarms of flying fish crashed into the faces of delicate ladies and thrashed across the deck. God must have been offended by my asking for a sign, reasoned De Keizer. Off the bow, a shadow loomed against the sun.  

May 18, 2011

Here, Take Back Your Genes

Meet Murray the Mule, who is carrying illegal alleles for one Dr. Prinzmann. Murray feels woozy, and his armpits stink of Cheddar. The purple blotch on the back of his hand is spreading.  

The Mule waits for a call under the winged lion of the piazzetta San Marco.

Don't Play Games with Strangers

Playing soccer outside the long barrow, the boys ignored the stranger in fancy dress. 
“Whose resting place is this?” he asked, raising a cane toward the old hole in the ground. 
“Don’t know,” said one of the boys, blocking a pass. 
A pink spider crept out of the man’s ear. 

May 14, 2011

What can Frida Kahlo teach you about writing?

"The Little Deer" by Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was a Mexican painter and a survivor. A fighter.

She knew pain all too well. At the age of 6 she was struck by polio. One of her legs would always be too thin. A terrifying bus accident in 1925 broke her bones and ravaged her body. Frida would never bear children as a result.

After the accident, she had to spend months in a full body cast. That was when she decided to give up on medical school and pursue a career in painting. Frida’s mother, Matilde, had an easel made that would allow Frida to paint in bed.

Frida Kahlo’s relationship to her body colors her approach to painting. Few other twentieth-century painters have so openly and systematically placed themselves at the center of their imaginary world. You might say that Kahlo was attempting to exorcise pain by trapping it in a cage of symbols on a two-dimensional canvas.

So, what can Frida Kahlo teach you about writing a novel, story or play?

May 13, 2011

Friar Godless & Brother Believer

On that sunless morning, mists clung to the earth as vaporous worms, slithering among the ghosts of black and leafless trees.

“I would like to pray here,” the Carmelite told Ralph. “This is the place I saw.”

The horses could use a rest. “As you will,” Ralph grunted. 

The Nameless Italian in a Cork Suit

I picked the wrong morning to get out of bed. My Norwegian Blues were at each other’s throats, hacking up a blizzard of feathers and squealing. Tires screeched outside, and the sound of fast-moving metal kissing a brick pillar segued into the howl of a malamute. 

May 11, 2011

A Time for Gentle Curses

Cosmo studied the lights that spelled out CURZON above the sliding glass doors, and shuddered. The O had been tortured into the shape of a blind eye. Silent albinos in black stood behind the glass doors, holding empty martini glasses and watching Cosmo intently. 

Meet Lonely Chinese Girl

Meet lonely Chinese girl, the ad said. For make family. Raglan weighed the empty vodka bottle, then set it down beside the screen and clicked on the ad. Chubby pink letters greeted him at once: “Chinese woman best wife in the world.”

With very sharp teeth, he grinned.

May 7, 2011

What can Mozart teach you about writing?

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was an Austrian composer. He began his lifelong love affair with music at the age of three, looking on in fascination as his older sister took keyboard lessons from their father, Leopold Mozart. Thelonious Monk got a similar start.

Wolfgang approached the clavier of his own volition, and would pick out thirds with his tiny hands. Leopold Mozart encouraged Wolfgang by teaching him minuets and other pieces when he turned four. By the time he was five years old, Mozart was composing music of his own. 

When Mozart was seven, his father took him on a Western European tour that would end three years later. Wolfgang and his older sister, Nannerl, would perform before counts and kings, archbishops and electors.

Mozart taught himself to play the violin before he became a teen. If you’re not a musician, let me put this in perspective: have you ever tried to hypnotize a cat? Learning the violin by yourself is not much easier.

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

May 6, 2011

Through the Forests of the Night

The crystal tiger sat on his haunches, purring tiny melodies. Chiara kneeled in the mud before the great cat. She daren’t breathe or make a sound.
“So it worked,” the tiger crooned.
“Yes,” said Chiara, lowering her head.
“I will come back in nine months,” said the tiger.

Knights of the Free Lunch

“And finally,” William howls, “you don’t need to put on all of your lipstick and eye shadow at once!” William gets up and hurls down the wine-stained napkin and sets his shoulders square like wings on a Cessna. He leaves the restaurant, all pride and no wallet.

May 5, 2011

MVP#2: Virgil, Guesswork, and Gene Wolfe's Mustache

Pick no. 1: Ursula LeGuin (b. 1929) wrote two of my favorite sf books, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Lathe of Heaven.

LeGuin’s forays into exoplanetary cultures feel like retellings of ancient, long-buried dramas. Her father was an anthropologist; anthropology is clearly one of Ms. LeGuin’s guiding lights. Much of her fiction reflects a strong interest in societal structures and culture-bound habits. She’s got a feel for the tiniest workaday details, for the routines that shape people’s lives. LeGuin’s narratives always dig deep.

In this video, Ursula LeGuin discusses how much of your work is in fact guesswork when you write historical fiction, Virgil’s made-up world, and LeGuin’s own historical novel, Lavinia.

May 4, 2011

On a Cold and Distant May

Like helicopter seeds, they drifted away. Mona trudged after the floating children, dragging her bad leg. The setting sun called to them, beyond the tall grass. Pete grabbed Mona’s wrist. “Let them go,” he whispered. “No! I’ll find that fucking elf,” she growled. “He owes me.” 

A Strange New Kind of Innocence

I tried to forget Gupta was no longer a man. He rolled onto his back, legs up in the air, exposing the silver hair of his belly and panting. “Go on,” said Ramil, “he wants you to pet him.” The 200-pound puppy looked at me through human eyes.