Sep 30, 2011

One Wrong Fold and You're Gone

Colby strode past two hundred origami foxes ranked in a shop window like a paper platoon ready to pounce on a squad of origami hens.

He’d seen them before, so he looked at the pavement instead.

Today there was an unexpected pair of shoes in Colby’s way. Attached to someone.

Why Doesn't it Feel Like Easter

November 2

Everyone in the office thinks my nose is funny.

November 3

Somebody started a blog about my nose.

November 4

Security is in on it. CCTV cameras track my movements.

November 5

Started coming to work in a bunny suit.

November 5

‘Heart-to-heart’ with HR director.

Sep 28, 2011

7 Headlines That Will Make You Doubt My Sanity (and Probably Yours)

You are a fish. A headline is a hook. You bite and the story reels you in.

A good headline is a story in a nutshell. I’ve come across all sorts: the good, the bad and the ugly. Some say a headline should not go over six words. Maybe, maybe not. That’s an ongoing debate.

Having said that, here are a few headlines I’d like to read someday:

Day Trader Commits Suicide Over Marzipan

Anti-Psychiatry Party Now Crackpot Den, Founder Says

Ghost Voter Not Eligible for State Pension

Tiny Terror! Daddy Longlegs Found in Westham Basement

Social Services: “Man Claimed Benefits for Half a Girlfriend”

Teens Use Foreign Slang, Aberdonians Appalled

Police and Fire Dept. Thank Family of Injured Man for Thanking the Police in Public, Thank-yous Make Front Page, Everybody's Happy

*

Now, if any of these spark your imagination, use them as you see fit.

Also, you should check out f-ck yeah headlines.

The Bit-Lover's Curse

They’re all two-dimensional and it gives me the blues, because they’re people. Thinking, breathing… OK, not breathing. But they can ‘drown’ and die, never to respawn.

At the funeral, the boy’s older sister looks at me like she knows something, her eyes a perfect blend of RGB. Empathy’s a bitch.

Sep 26, 2011

9 Things About Fiction I Learned the Hard Way

About a month ago, I was kindly invited to share some of my notions on writing over at iwritereadrate.com - a new community for writers. This is what I came up with.


1. A book is just like a sandwich.
How do you name a sandwich? ‘Ham on rye’ mentions the ham first. BLT – bacon, lettuce, tomato – leaves out the bread altogether.

Readers care a lot about fillings. The middle part of a story is hard to write because you need variety in your sandwich, but certain ingredients just don’t go together. Like pickled eggs and cranberry jam. (Yikes.)

The closing chapters of a book, and especially the final chapter, have to live up to the promise you made when the reader took her first bite. So a book is a kind of sandwich where the second bread slice, the ending, is slightly more important than the first.

2. Everybody struggles.
Before he died, Franz Kafka asked his best friend to burn all of his manuscripts. Now hailed as a master, young Kafka took a dim view of his own work. You can be a media mogul or a Mogadishu slumdog: self-doubt haunts everyone.

3. Realistic dialogue is not the same as a real-life conversation.
You don’t have an editor sitting by your side at the pub, correcting your grammar and berating you for wasting time on irrelevant gossip. Or telling you to go easy on the preaching.

‘Realistic’ is whatever sounds natural given the circumstances.
• A Greek god wouldn’t talk like a homeless schizophrenic from Glasgow. (Unless he were trapped in his body.)
• A healthcare professional does not sound like a Tai Chi instructor or an insurance salesman. Not while they’re on duty.
• Soccer players tend to be rowdier and speak more freely than Franciscan monks.
• Social and political constraints matter. People living under dictatorships do not express themselves the same way as those who live in democratic countries.

4. Two things are especially hard to write about:
Fighting and dancing. They’re not unrelated. In The Life-giving Sword, Yagyu Munenori observed that you should never give a sword to a man who couldn’t dance.

Protip: Bernard Cornwell writes especially good fight scenes, deploying a number of action verbs (wheel, thump, kick, spin) to good effect.

5. Sight gags don’t really work on the printed page.
Visual comedy needs visuals; try writing a summary of a Buster Keaton film and you’ll see what I mean.

When writing comedy, understatement is a reliable friend. Irony is fickle and elusive; hyperbole, potentially damaging. Handle both with care.

6. Technobabble is the easiest way to date a work of fiction.
I was hooked on Star Trek TNG growing up, and the conversations with a ‘technical’ slant sounded so very complex to me. If you’re going to write about science, you’d better know something about it. Otherwise, it’s reversed polarities all the way down.[1][2]

7. Attack the five senses.
Readers want to see your character, taste the hot cross buns she just baked, hear the phone ringing in her pocket (her ringtone is Dick Dale’s Misirlou Twist), smell her favorite scent (anise) and feel the warmth on the soles of her feet as she stretches her legs toward the radiator on a chilly November evening.

Characters to fall in love with or hate with a passion — that’s what your book needs.

8. Shakespeare was a mash-up artist.
Innovators are simply people who know how to keep their culture alive. Culture devours the new and turns it into the old, and vice-versa. Star Wars is a Greek tragedy/Western/Samurai flick in space. Akira Kurosawa wanted to make Japanese Westerns. Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle rewrote Dante’s “Inferno” as a science-fiction tale.[3]

9. “Write what you know” is dangerous advice.
Instead, I’d go with “Pick an unfamiliar subject and learn more about it.”

And choose a day job that won’t give you carpal tunnel syndrome.



FURTHER READING
The Unreal Art of Realistic Dialogue at the Guardian online || A concise definition of Treknobabble || A review of The Life-Giving Sword

FOOTNOTES
[1] Legend has it that an old lady accosted William James after a lecture and told him his speech was all fine and good, but he should get his cosmology straight: the Earth was a flat disc, borne by four elephants that stood on a turtle’s back.
“Well, what does the turtle stand on?” James asked.
“Oh, no, Mr. James,” the old lady said. “You won’t get me that way. It’s turtles all the way down.”
[2] Patrick Stewart approached the role of Jean-Luc Picard with gravitas and urbanity, and he was one of the reasons why I watched every single episode of the show.
[3] They even had a special place for Kurt Vonnegut.

Sep 24, 2011

What can Alfred Hitchcock teach you about writing?

Photo by Jack Mitchell
“For me, the cinema is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake.”

Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) was a British film director and producer. He pretty much invented the glacial blonde and the MacGuffin. Not only that, but he gave us the daddy of all natural horror films, The Birds, which was based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier.

Hitchcock has been described as a “seething mass of complexes and insecurities,” which he worked out through his films. When you watch Psycho, Marnie or Spellbound, it’s clear he drew on his inner turmoil for inspiration. With sadistic gusto.
·         Psycho is about a man so deeply attached to his overbearing mother that he tries to erase his own self.
·         Marnie, starring Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren, focuses on a woman who fears men, thunderstorms and the color red. 
·         Spellbound explores the psyche of a doctor with an intense dislike of parallel lines against a white background.*

*He is said to be ‘amnesiac,’ though he might be diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder these days.

Legend has it that Hitchcock once proclaimed, “Actors are cattle.” The karmic gods took note. During the filming of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Carole Lombard brought heifers onto the set and name-tagged them Lombard, Robert Montgomery and Gene Raymond. In the murkiest depths of my soul I do wish there were a version of Mr. & Mrs. Smith with an all-cow cast.  

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

Sep 23, 2011

Three-Fisted Salomé

Salomé was a girl of many parts. When she grabbed you by the collar, she used more hands than two.
“Where’s the money?” she bellowed.
“I don’t have it,” I said.
“You whiny good-for-nothing scuzz bucket. Did you even sell the child, like you promised?” 

*

This prompt is set in the Land of Injustice.

Five Proverbs from the Land of Injustice

Today, I invite you to imagine a world where organized crime, and not a democratic government, is at the top of the social pyramid, and there are no delusions as to who really calls the shots.

Such a world might witness tremendous power struggles, and attempts to bring down crime lords would amount to acts of war.

Everyone here knows that, when major powers clash, the rabble gets shafted. No matter who wins. Survival is the only thing that matters. Want to praise someone? Say that they 'live by their wits.'

Punishment, however, is a constant in the Land of Injustice. All societies develop honor codes. Even savage* ones do. Scapegoating would be a common practice. Mock trials would afford the masses great entertainment, and secret executions would be a favored problem-solving method.

*Savage = brutal. Not savage as “primitive.”

What kind of proverb or folk saying might emerge in a world like this? Having asked myself that question, I bent to the task of creating some, which I am now giving to you. (“As is.” I can’t guarantee they won’t break your computer, or your brain.)

Ergo:
Five Proverbs from the Land of Injustice.  

The dragons of profit are mightier than the sheep of virtue.

Today my husband, tomorrow, who knows.

Horse around, horse around, horse around;
tonight we make merry, tomorrow we drown.

There is no why, only when.

It’s never the right bullet that gets you.

*

In case you’re wondering: Blake’s Proverbs of Hell inspired this little exercise.

Sep 21, 2011

The Light in Her Pocket

I’d never known mimes to yell at people. A bunch of them terrorized the boulevard, quoting André Gide at old ladies walking sad-eyed dogs. Even the city pigeons avoided that clamoring troupe.

One of them I recognized, and it gave me the chills. No-one stays young for that long.

Parting the Curtains, Crossing the Bone Gate

Something a wee bit different today. Here's a poem intended as a prompt.



Where everyone has a heart of gold,
Thieves do not prowl in the night but
Sneak up behind you
Armed with lancets and jewelry scales.

There will be another 'conventional' prompt later today.

Sep 17, 2011

What can Albert Einstein teach you about writing?

“Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.” 

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was a German theoretical physicist. He was afraid of black holes.

First off, let’s confront two popular myths about Einstein.

Myth One, that he did poorly in school. Not true. Einstein exhibited no particular developmental handicap. Student-Einstein possessed a rebellious streak – he refused to take things at face value and may have infuriated a teacher or two – but the legend about a quasi-autistic child is just that, a legend.  

(Toddler Albert expected his younger sister to be born with a set of wheels, though. Chalk that up to linguistic confusion.)

Myth Two, that he once stated people only use 5% of their brains. That was a joke. When pressed for a reason as to why he was so much smarter than the average human being, Einstein told his interviewer, “I don’t know. Maybe people only use 5% of their brains.”

Wikipedia has an article on Einstein’s brain. That should tell you a little something about Einstein’s impact in Western culture. Then there is E=mc2, the equation that describes mass-energy equivalence. It’s the only equation featured in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time -- arguably the most famous equation in the world.

Although he was once described as ‘a cartoonist’s dream,’ Einstein is by no means a one-dimensional character. He supported research in nuclear fission, but later regretted having done so. Einstein’s influence led to the creation of the Manhattan Project.

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

Sep 16, 2011

Where the Trees Are Too Tall and Straight

You said the fading rectangle was plastic. When I was little, its colors were brighter and I could see your face on it.

I couldn’t eat your body, so I buried it under 3 inches of dirt and snow. The next morning I started out with the sun behind me.

*

Inspired by this news item.

In Ten Minutes, My Name Will Be Lazaro

A blue-eyed grandma bites her nails in front of me while her grandson puts on a pair of cheap black earrings, and I want to take another look at my fake passport. Badly.

Now the grandma sings; I can’t make out a word. This whole country has me on edge.

Sep 14, 2011

Grey Birds of Paradise

If you don’t own at least 8 shirts in this town, you’re dead. That’s one for each day of the week and a spare for emergencies.

Bring the spare to work. My coworkers do. It’s Monday afternoon and there’ve been two spray-can attacks already.

Yellow is everybody’s favorite color.  

1389

In accent-free English, he said he was no beggar. No, he had something to sell.

The man held out a miniature church with glowing windowpanes. There were flea-sized congregants within and a tiny priest moving his arms. They turned their heads toward me.  

*

This prompt was inspired by the city of Prague. If you've never been there, you're missing out. It may well be the most beautiful city in the world.

The food is great, Czech beer is heavenly, the weather's pretty decent in the summer months and the public transportation system is affordable and very efficient. If you happen to be an architecture buff, check out the Dancing House. You owe it to yourself.

Art lover that I am, I personally recommend the Alfons Mucha museum

Now, for one of Prague's favorite sons: there are two museums dedicated to Franz Kafka. One is good: the Franz Kafka  museum. The other one, the house where he used to live in Central Prague, is rather disappointing.

Prague is a storied city, and proud of it. You'll find the legend of the Prague golem here along with a few others.

While you're there, do yourself a favor and get a Funexplosive t-shirt. They're awesome.

Sep 10, 2011

What can Johnny Depp teach you about writing?

Photo by Angela George

“I don't pretend to be captain weird. I just do what I do.”

According to People magazine, Johnny Depp was the sexiest man alive in 2003, and then again in 2009. Presumably, he did not exist outside those two confining 365-day periods.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl would come out in 2003, and moviegoers would be regaled with Depp’s histrionic pirate, Jack Sparrow. The pirate is fittingly named; he doesn’t so much evolve as flit and shuffle from one ridiculous episode to the next. Sparrow is a picaresque anti-hero, a kind of role that Depp is well suited to.

Director Gore Verbinski knew how to use Depp’s strengths, and as a result Depp carries the movie on his back. Phenomenal actors lend weight and subtlety to the silliest roles. Think Ian McKellen’s Magneto or Gandalf; consider Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard or Professor X. Those very characters in the hands of lesser actors would have slipped into unintentional comedy. Jack Sparrow is Depp’s Picard. For years to come, a broad swath of the movie-going public will refer to him as ‘that pirate guy.’

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

Sep 9, 2011

Get More Truth at a Massive 15% Discount

Mike crouched beside the front left tire and caressed the chrome on the fender. He was tempted to lick it instead. The sleek black car of his dreams: only 45% lie content. More than half of it was real.

On Fridays I Travel Faster Than Light

Slipped through the cracks of my kitchen floor.

I blinked. Identical kitchen, plus a carbon-copy me. She dropped her tea mug.

We both sank through that kitchen floor and fell on a third ‘we.’

“We have to do something,” I said.
“Let’s hold hands,” said number 3. “Maybe then--”

Sep 7, 2011

Classed D for "Dangerous Extrovert"

That guy and his wicked smile were out to make friends in public. Agent Costanza fumbled with her stun gun. Damn sweaty palms!
“Hey there,” said the extro, beaming as he advanced on Costanza with an extended hand.
“Stop right there,” she said timidly, “stop or I’ll--” 

King Paw Will See You Now

Luckily for the three of us, my cat is a translator. She’s already convinced two chieftains – that’s what they call themselves – that we aren’t food, but inferior intellects. So the Law on Intelligence applies to us, and we might qualify as pets.

Sep 3, 2011

What can Andy Warhol teach you about writing?



“They always say time changes things,
but you actually have to change them yourself.”

Andy Warhol was a shoe designer and, by his own admission, a deeply superficial person. He understood himself better than most of us ever will.

OK, I’m being mean; Warhol was more than a shoe designer. He also made album covers, of which these two are the most popular.

The banana skin was a sticker in the original release.
You could actually peel the banana and ruin your collectible.

 Another of Warhol’s crown achievements was foisting Nico on the Velvet Underground, whom they apparently hated, but together they cut a half-decent record with a couple of memorable tunes. Nico wasn’t bad on her own, it’s just that the crew didn’t gel. She was an outsider. But I digress.

Andy Warhol produced a hilarious arthouse film starring Udo Kier, Blood for Dracula, where the titular vampire, sick and dying, must find a virgin to feed on. Apparently, people who’ve had sex are toxic to Dracula. (So now you know why Edward Cullen is so fixated on Bella Swan. Wink wink, nudge nudge.)

Another of his experiments is the gargantuan Sleep, in which poet John Giorno sleeps for six hours. And that’s it. I wouldn’t watch it, but still. I’m glad it was made.

Warhol’s very well-known for his visual assault on Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. Nobody had thought to depict these popular icons the way he did.

What I’m thinking is, some people are forces of nature, others are forces of History. Andy was at the right place, at the right time, to play a given role – and he did. Art needed a Warhol, so it invented Andrew Warhola to play that part.

What can Warhol teach you about writing a novel, story or play? 

Sep 2, 2011

3 Totally Not Crazy Search Terms, and 6 From Bizarro World


As a rule, I like to know how readers find my stuff. So I check my webmaster dashboard on a weekly basis.

Some visitors strike me as perfectly sane people who feel a little stuck and are looking for inspiration or advice.
Others, I assume, must be:
Undead basement dwellers.
Devotees of nameless forces.
Fetishists for whom no twisted passion is too vile.

And they frighten me.

Without further ado, here’s what people hope to find on my blog:

Sep 1, 2011

Of All the Planets In the Universe, You Had to Land on Mine


Shaun El Malo was hopped up on tetracycline and enjoying his near-death experience when a large egg-shaped blur sailed across viewport four.

It didn’t set off any alarms. El Malo shrugged it off. But his ego implant cared, and triggered Shaun’s pain centers to bring him around.