Aug 31, 2011

A Water Cooler Legend

Extra eyes take a little getting used to, especially the UV set and the wide-angle on the back of your head. Paulson strode confidently into the meeting room. He’d be the talk of the office.

Everyone had got the same upgrades over the weekend.

Buried in White

It started with a hand that came from nowhere and tried to strangle me. We were an hour’s drive from the Bonneville Salt Flats. I turned to Cranky in the passenger seat.
“What’re you doing? That’s not funny.”
Cranky was shaking, pushing his back against the door.

Aug 27, 2011

What can Pablo Picasso teach you about writing?

Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was a Spanish painter and sculptor, a man who devoted his entire life to beauty. Even its ugly side.

He was born in Málaga, a Mediterranean city on the Costa del Sol (‘The Sunshine Coast’) founded by the Phoenicians in 770 BC. The Phoenician Malaka is probably derived from their word for ‘salt’.

Most children learn to say ‘no’ at a very young age. Picasso’s mother claimed that baby Picasso’s very first word was piz, by which he meant lápiz – ‘pencil’. That speaks volumes about the baby boy’s calling.

Much like Dalí, Picasso turned his back on formal instruction,  dropping out of the Royal Academy of San Fernando, which at the time was Spain’s leading artistic academy.

Picasso made his way to Paris in 1900, where he became friends with surrealist poets, slept in dingy apartments, starved in the cold and painted like a madman. More importantly, Paris is where Picasso met his first patrons and collectors.

Pablo Picasso’s oeuvre is a bewildering, metamorphic maze. Like them or not, pieces like the Demoiselles d’Avignon or Guernica are the product of a mind that challenged itself every single day.

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

Aug 26, 2011

Seasons Come and Go, But Cocktails Are Forever

Mr. Bayard showed up for his appointment with a gherkin up his nose. He was not too happy about it.
“Daniel,” his probation officer said, “would you like to explain that?”
She’d talk down to him in a motherly way, though Bayard was her senior by decades. 

Astrology: No Pants Required

This is the "No Pants" part.

The lady’s forefinger hung straight like a pendulum over a cryptic mark that looked like a Wiener.

“At the age of 37…” She raised a painted-on eyebrow.
I leaned forward. “37? I’ll be a corpse.”
“Wait. This is big.”
“What do you mean?”
“Bugger,” she said. “I lost it.”

Aug 24, 2011

3 Ways to Reinvent Vampires

Not an actual vampire.

Pretty vampires: I hate them. But the concept of vampire as a bloated monster, a plague carrier, an entity that was once human and now turns on its loved ones – that’s fodder for any number of great horror tales.

If there’s one thing the world doesn’t need more of, it’s sparkly, sexy vampires. (Shame on Bram Stoker and Sheridan LeFanu; they started that trend, after all.)

Still. The vampire as monster, as unknown quantity, is something that appeals to you and me. I want vampires to live on in fiction, and I bet you do, too.

So I’m giving away 3 approaches to the vampire mythos that you can use in any way you please.

Aug 20, 2011

What can Stephen Hawking teach you about writing?

Stephen Hawking (b. 1942) is an English theoretical physicist and cosmologist. And, you might add, a person of extraordinary willpower. Now 69, he’s been living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis for almost four decades.

By the young age of 32, he was no longer able to feed himself or get out of bed on his own.  In 1985, a pneumonia forced him to undergo a tracheotomy which made him unable to speak. He now relies on a speech synthesizer designed by a Cambridge scientist. Hawking’s ‘robot voice’ and wheelchair-bound persona have been lampooned in works of popular entertainment. Don’t ask me why – motor neurone diseases aren’t sources of humor as far as I’m concerned.

Hawking made a huge splash with A Brief History of Time, probably the first popular-science book to be turned into an opera. (Which will most likely premiere in 2016. Are we to enjoy the music of the spheres on Earth? Will Father Time sing lullabies to his grandchildren, the stars? Do we get to see black holes raging against accretion disks? I am intrigued.)

Stephen Hawking is the bodhisattva of perseverance. He of all people knows that it is vital to focus on your work and goals. So, what can he teach you about writing a novel, poem or play?  

Aug 19, 2011

The Three Lions of Shame

I don’t expect you to believe me. A man is following me from plane to plane. He sat across the aisle from me when I left Madrid. I boarded the plane to Stuttgart -- there he was. Coincidence? Maybe. Then Frankfurt. Stockholm. Tallinn. Five flights in a row? Too much. 

The Flagon of Remorse

At times I hesitate before I crush a skull. That brunette made sad puppy eyes like you never saw.

“What’re you doing, Fish?” Dinklager asked. Screechy little weasel.
“She looks at me like that, Dink, and I--”
“Put a tarp over it.”
I made ready to swing my club.

Aug 17, 2011

What if Dracula were in Moby-Dick?

Call me Dracula. A few centuries ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me in the Carpathians, I thought I would sail about a little and see some juicier parts of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and replenishing my circulation. 

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever the claws of aching thirst rake the hollow that used to be my soul, and I pause before coffin warehouses, and bring up the rear of every funeral I meet – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. 


What with Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Android Karenina and The Chronicles of Blarnia, I'm surprised no-one's yet tried to weave good ol' Vlad Dracul into Melville's terrifying masterpiece. 

Ghost Breaker

Pip Daltorio had passed out in front of the editing screen when the man came in with the film cans under his arm. The man had a face like a rhino’s backside, and wore a chiffon shirt one size too small. His barrel chest blossomed like a meaty, two-petaled flower.


Aug 13, 2011

What can René Magritte teach you about writing?

“Life obliges me to do something, so I paint.

René Magritte (1898-1967) was a Belgian surrealist painter. He was born in Lessines, a small town whose municipal flag displays a silver skeleton key, its tooth pointing upward.*

Magritte was the eldest son of a tailor and a former hatmaker. René’s mother drowned herself in the Sambre river when he was 13. Allegedly, she was found with her dress over her head, which has been connected with Magritte’s recurrent motif, human faces draped in cloth.

Much as he would love to be a full-time painter, Magritte was forced to work in advertising to support himself. During 1947-48 he turned his hand to forgery, producing fake Picassos, Braques and Chiricos. Business was slow, I guess, because Magritte decided to forge banknotes as well.  

To say that Magritte has codified surrealism is no less absurd than claiming that rain designed umbrellas, and then people to carry them. Surrealism is the bastard child of a dozen fathers; René is foremost among them.   

So, what can René Magritte teach you about writing a novel, poem or play?

Aug 12, 2011

Quicksilver Imperium

I handed over the lead box my grandfather had kept for fifty years.

The one who came forward to take the box turned it over in the crisp moonlight. Her whiskers stood on end, dripping saltwater.

“Wrong box,” she flared through her gills. “Get right one,” she said. 

King on the Run

It’s five in the morning and dawn breaks over the skyline and my hands are still shaking. There’s still blood on the couch. I want to remove the shard of green glass from my left palm but I’m quaking all over, like jello.

That over there is somebody’s foot.

Aug 10, 2011

Can Radio Waves Turn Green?

Fiamma sat between the two oaks and tuned the little radio she’d built. She was certain the trees were brother and sister. That they spoke to each other and the plants around them. Fiamma could listen in on the conversation if she found the right frequency – maybe even participate.

Beasts of Burden and Accounting

My accountant is secretly a horse. No, no, listen: I stopped by his office this morning. The man was on all fours, with a feed bag strapped to his face and a saddle on his back.

Bruce seemed horrified to see me.
“Did you lose a bet or something?” 

Aug 6, 2011

What can Edward Hopper teach you about writing?

“No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination.”

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) is the guy who painted Nighthawks.

His portrayal of lone figures in physical or psychological disarray (sometimes both) is tinged with a mysterious light. It is unsentimental, but not harsh. Melancholy as well, though it stops short of despair.

Hopper’s images possess a voyeuristic quality. The painter’s gaze, and by extension your own, falls upon private moments where a quiet drama is about to unfold. Tension lurks beneath the surface, you tell yourself. The scent of old lacquer hangs in the air and the sun shines on promises broken. Edward Hopper’s world teeters on the brink of exhaustion. Tomorrow’s a new day. Perhaps.

Edward Hopper was born in Upper Nyack, NY. During World Wars I and II, they built submarine chasers there. Nyack was also a station on the Underground Railroad. The satellite view reveals a quiet little place where nothing much seems to happen. Fewer than 7,000 people live there now.

You might say that Hopper’s life was uneventful. There are no wild tales of sky battles or encounters with mysterious creatures in the woods. The fact is, he struggled with inner turmoil, much like you and me. He was forced to work as a freelance illustrator, an occupation he’d come to detest. Long bouts of depression weighed him down. Only at 31 did he sell his first piece, and that was painted over an earlier self-portrait.

He wanted to paint, so he did. Even when he couldn’t lift a hand to make a mark on the canvas, he sat before it. As you do before the blank page, waiting for the floodgates to open.

What can Edward Hopper teach you about writing a novel, poem or play?

Aug 5, 2011

Adventures in Self-Editing

You’d think writing story prompts is easy.

Well, it is, if you stick to “The setting is an office. The main character is Joe/Jane Placeholder. The theme is confidence.”

I could turn out fifty of those in a day, but that kind of prompt is not what I want to do. I want to give you stuff nobody else would write, for one very simple reason:

Only powerful writing fires your imagination.[1]

Let’s look at a concrete example.

O Flea, Your Brother is Slipping

We’s having lunch, and the food starts to shudder, like, and we’re bouncing up and down in the wind, holding on for dear life. “Sid,” I says to me friend, Auld Sid, “me ’ooks are buckling. Lend us a couple,” I shout at the top of my lungs.

Aug 3, 2011

The Gentleness of Sea Lions

You too can glimpse the divine. To me it was a guy in a torn tuxedo, sawdust all over his hair, shoulders and front, whistling “I’m a Believer.”

As he sauntered past the bus stop, his wallet fell to the pavement. He kept on walking, and I made a decision.

The Hurricane in My Mouth

Megan Ragano, homeless beauty queen, crammed two cartons of cigarettes into her pockets and walked out of the store like a fallen angel. Glorious sunlight turned the cracked asphalt white in places.

Sitting in a grey Honda on the parking lot across the street, a man cursed his cheap camera.