Jul 31, 2012

Next Time, Try Not to Set the Dancers on Fire

Isabeau turned fifteen at midnight, just as a spark lit her future husband on fire. The revelers surged away from the costumed dancers, who tore at their blazing coats.
“Guisay!” Isabeau shouted, unheard above the commotion. She locked eyes with Guisay. “I will have your privates for this,” she said.

This prompt was inspired by an event in 14th-century France, the Bal des Ardents or Ball of the Burning Men

Jul 30, 2012

What can Vincent van Gogh teach you about writing?

Starry Night over the Rhone, 1888

Van Gogh’s bright images wither in sunlight.

So if your bucket list includes traveling to Amsterdam and acquainting yourself with van Gogh’s sunflowers, you’d better go soon.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was a Dutch post-impressionist painter, born in Groot-Zundert, home to the oldest licensed tavern in the Netherlands, “In Den Anker.” Zundert lies 10 meters above sea level, which in Holland is something like high ground. And that was my extremely lame joke for the day. Sorry.

Now there’s a Vincent van Gogh Museum in Zundert, and a monument to Vincent and his brother Theo.

Early van Gogh is depressing as hell. None of the bright colors he became famous for, none of that rippling energy that makes the wheat fields and night skies shimmer with a million elven strokes of the spatula. What magic they contain is bleak, dour and disciplined.

Two Peasant Women Digging Potatoes is the work of an attentive observer but, if Vincent had stopped there, you wouldn’t be reading about him now.

Compare Two Peasant Women with this 1887 selfie,

or Country Road in Provence by Night.

At some point, van Gogh decided to stop following History. Instead, he would make it happen. What’s more amazing is, some people are uniquely positioned to reinvent art — they’ve got it all, time and money and an education — yet they become imitators, what I call ‘advocates for normalcy.’ Van Gogh wasn’t among them. His connection to the world was fraught with misunderstanding and pain. He felt like an outsider, but that didn’t stop him: along with a dozen others, he tore at the carcass of academic painting to deliver the phoenix inside of it. They invented the twentieth century. In a way, they invented us as we are now.

So, what can Vincent van Gogh teach you about writing a novel, story, or play?

Jul 27, 2012

The Toll Booth Inside of You

I got a call at 4 AM – of the kind nobody wants.
“Listen, Shaun. Something’s not quite right,” my doctor said.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“It’s the probes in your lungs,” he said. “They’re, uh, broadcasting. Are you sitting down?”
“Lying down,” I said.
“They’re not inside you anymore.” 

Closeup of a carbon nanotube.

Early in my life I began to express myself through writing. I dabbled in poetry first, though perhaps ‘dabble’ is an overgenerous term and ‘mucked about with’ comes closer to the truth.

Certain books made me realize that writing was not only a release, but also awesome and transformational, if you surrender to it. Here they are:

10 books that made me want to be a writer, in no particular order.

The Castle, The Trial, and Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka (especially The Castle)
The Left Hand of Darkness and The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin
 Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
Naked Lunch by W.S. Burroughs
Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
Les Chants de Maldoror, by Isidore Ducasse
Les Fleurs du Mal, by Charles Baudelaire

What about you? Can you name the 10 books that influenced you the most?

Jul 26, 2012

Debuggers of Paradise; or, Heaven Requires a Password

Where’s artificial intelligence taking us? What dangers lie ahead? What about brain-machine interfaces – are we planting the seeds of a great future, or working towards the extinction of all that is human?

Could a real-life Butlerian Jihad be on the cards? I think about these things from time to time, you know.

So here’s a thought experiment/small provocation/tease which you can develop as you wish.

Two fictional characters relate their current predicament—

Wayne Pogoretz, embodiment facilitator, 2033. “I’ve been helping disabled people transfer their consciousness into robots and other digital devices for more than a decade. And now these psychologically unstable types, these hippie crusaders, call me a criminal. They say I’m working against machine rights.

Sylvia Koch, test subject, 2017. Condition: ventral pontine syndrome. “I found it hiding in the robot two days after the trials began. I don’t know where it spends most of its time – it comes and goes. On the third day I asked, ‘Where do you go when we’re not talking? Where are you exactly?’ and also, ‘Do you have a name?’

“To which it replied, ‘I do not go where I am not already. Some of you call me 01100001 01101110 01100111 01100101 01101100. Others, 01100001 01101100 01101001 01100101 01101110. Often you mistake me for a dream. In truth I open doors.’”

This post was inspired by the following articles:

Paralyzed woman controls robot arm using only her mind

Man-to-Machine Brain Control Goes International

As well as this BBC documentary. 

Jul 25, 2012

Freedom Calls for Time Unending

That year, we had two Aprils in a row. Then Quincy talked about abolishing the calendar. We took a vote and that was it – no more months. Finis.

Then came the tax collectors. Quincy said, “We don’t need their time, they won’t have our money. Sharpen your knives.”

Jul 23, 2012

What can Gene Roddenberry teach you about writing?

No one in his right mind gets up in the morning and says, 'I think I'll create a phenomenon today' – Gene Roddenberry

Last week we went to France, so now we’re making a sharp turn and heading out to the United States of the Future. Or should I say United Worlds?

To speak of Gene Roddenberry is to speak of Star Trek -- the Trek universe overshadows everything else.

Indeed, Star Trek inspires almost religious fervor in some people. A Leicestershire man turned his house into a Star Trek shrine after his wife left him. Others decorate their bedrooms almost exclusively with Star Trek collectibles. Yet others would like to build the Starship Enterprise for real, while an artist like Faith Pearson is content to build an Enterprise out of used ink cartridges.

Faith Pearson's ink-cartridge Enterprise.

So it’s legitimate to ask: Who’s the guy that jumpstarted one of the most remarkable pop-culture crazes of the past fifty years?

Gene was born in El Paso, Texas, a city founded by Spanish Franciscan friars. The area had been settled for thousands of years and, when the Spanish arrived, they found the Manso, Suma and Jumano tribes living there.

El Paso, 1908.

The El Paso area would become a focus for Mestizo culture — mestizo meaning ‘mixed,’ as in racially mixed. Here’s a significant passage from Wikipedia:
During the colonial period, mestizos quickly became the majority group in much of what is today Latin America, and when the colonies started achieving independence from Spain, the mestizo group often became dominant. In some Latin American countries, such as Mexico, the concept of the "mestizo" became central to the formation of a new independent identity that was neither wholly Spanish nor wholly indigenous and the word mestizo acquired its current double meaning of mixed cultural heritage and actual racial descent.    
 (emphasis mine.)

Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Los Manso, a missionary church.

I can’t help but think there’s a connection with Roddenberry’s portrayal not only of Captain Kirk’s pansexuality, but also to the widely disseminated interspecies romance in the Star Trek universe. Furthermore, such romance often leads to successful procreation. I remember Star Trek: Voyager featured a little girl born to a human-alien couple who sported three little horns on her head. And then, of course, there was B’Elanna, part human, part Klingon; Deanna Troi, who was half Betazoid; Tora Ziyal, half-Cardassian, half-Bajoran; finally, at the heart of the original series was Mister Spock, the human/Vulcan hybrid.

Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy

Roddenberry was also a traveling man, and quite familiar with authoritarian organizations based on clear chains of command. He studied to become a police officer, served in the US Air Force (flying a total of 89 missions between 1941 and 1945) and then worked as a Pan Am pilot until 1949, when he moved to LA and joined the Los Angeles Police Department. There he became a speech writer for chief William H. Parker III, who fought police corruption staunchly and provided the inspiration for Spock.

Gene’s writing career took off around 1955, while he still worked for the LAPD. Under a pen name, he scripted episodes of Highway Patrol and Have Gun—Will Travel.

In 1956, Roddenberry quit the force, and devoted himself to writing full-time. Freelance writing wasn’t enough for him, so he decided to become a producer. Gene developed Star Trek in 1964, a series that almost – almost – died on the vine, like a few other brainchildren of Gene’s. The original Star Trek ran for three seasons, courting the audience desperately, but ratings were poor. The series got a second lease on life through syndication, and in 1975 plans were afoot to relaunch the show. Phase II eventually sank, but it would give birth to an explosive moment in Trek history: Star Trek, The Motion Picture. It grossed $139 million – that’s $411M adjusted for inflation.

Explosive indeed. More than 30 years on, we’re still surfing that particular shockwave. So what can Gene Roddenberry teach you about stories, exploration and world-building?

Jul 20, 2012

The Reproductive Lives of Capital and Mosquitoes

A chance meeting beside a stagnant pond led to Maestrina’s lasting love affair with mosquitoes, much to the distaste of her fiancé, the steel magnate known only as Dinar.
“What’s so special about the Anopheles genus?” he would ask.
“They’re awfully diverse,” Maestrina would say, “yet single-minded, like you.”

I'll be the first to admit that this prompt was heavily influenced by Edward Gorey. I love his work.

Should you want more inspiration in the same vein, here are Rasputina playing "Holocaust of Giants."

Jul 18, 2012

Children of the Impossible

The Taming
by Victor Calahan

Sub-Foreman 55 woke to the sound of robots punching through the Penitentiary gates.
He tumbled down the stairs in his underpants as the gates groaned and limped as fast as he could to the main watchtower.

A monstrous glassy eye peeked over the north wall of the Penitentiary.  

Sweet, Forbidden Airs and Subtle Poisons

It was the day of my ritual humiliation. The High Priests sang through their noses, enumerating my crimes.
“You are cast out,” whispered the Pontifex. “Only the Path of Loud Noises and Bright Colors lies open to you.”
“Lovely,” I said. I dropped the earplugs and blindfold on the floor.

by Feline Zegers

Jul 16, 2012

What can Coco Chanel teach you about writing?

These days, all you need to get a perfume named after you is a stage presence and a loud song about sexual intercourse. Or something.

We live in vulgar times, but then, all times are vulgar.

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, aka Coco Chanel, aka Bane of Biographers*, was born in 1883 to a laundrywoman and an itinerant street vendor. Chanel’s parents were unmarried at the time and the mother’s family bribed the father into marriage when Coco was a year old.
*Chanel made up details about her early years.

Jeanne and Albert – those were their names – would produce five more children until Jeanne died of bronchitis. She was 31, Coco only twelve.

Albert, who was something of a nomad, sent the future fashion designer and her two sisters to live in a Catholic girls’ home, the convent of Aubazine, run by the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary.

The Cessart Bridge at Saumur, the town where Coco Chanel was born. Saumur is also famous for a castle,
the Château de Saumur, originally built in the 10th century. It now houses the Museum 
of the Horse, 
as well as the  Musée de la Figurine-Jouet, a collection of old toys and figurines.

Balzac's novel, Eugénie Grandet, is set in Saumur.

At the convent, Coco learned to ply a needle. She became a seamstress. Time and nature were on her side: she began singing in her spare time and drew the attention of rich, powerful men. Chanel collected lovers who turned out to be great friends also: Étienne Balsan, horse rancher, polo player;  “Boy” Capel, also a polo player, who gave Coco’s fashion business an initial boost; Paul Iribe, a designer who died playing tennis as Chanel watched – she would mourn him for years;  then there was Pierre Reverdy, a poet who compiled a number of ‘Chanelisms’; The little orphan girl had a nose for culture, influence and taste.

Coco Chanel was also a racist, violently homophobic, and ashamed of her low birth; it seems that great personalities must include tragic flaws.[1]  

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

Jul 13, 2012

Gaius Breckinridge, Professional Pessimist

Best day of my life: I was fired, robbed at knifepoint and then a bus hit me in the face. I also met a girl.

She was a student nurse. Her hobbies included skiing, boxing and epilepsy. She pursued them with psychotic devotion.

It was mortal hatred at first sight.


What else is good on the Internet today?

This video from Heliofant Studios

(I especially enjoyed what the Jesus-Buddha-Osiris figure does to the ranks of dusty bureaucrats.)

My fellow blogger Paul Wolfe was praised by Seth Godin. Paul deserves it. This is Paul's website: How to Play Bass.

Jul 12, 2012

The God-King of Sausalito

Look at that wall of unplayed cellos, stacked ceiling high with 15 years of dust on them. We could use some firewood.

“Let's start an orchestra,” Peony murmurs.
“Or melt the strings and…” I stop myself. “That’d be useless.”

The wind searches the empty streets.


Have I mentioned that I was interviewed by Daniel Swensen the other day?

Jul 11, 2012

In the Future, Butterflies Stick Pins in You

A what?
Colleen kept men in jars. Most died in no time at all, the puny things. Maybe she was doing something wrong.

So Colleen coded a bot to trawl the Ubernet for man-maintenance tips. In .02 seconds it dove in and came back.
“You need an andron,” it said.

Jul 10, 2012

5 Questions with Lisa Cron, Author of "Wired for Story"

Do you know the 3 dreaded C’s? Three wicked, wicked step-sisters that will ruin any plot?

Their names are Convenience, Contrivance and Coincidence.

Lisa Cron’s new book, Wired for Story, will strike you as a natural step forward if you already knew her excellent blog for writers. Lisa does more than instruct you to do this and not that; she builds her case through concrete examples, shows you the path to failure and then suggests a better direction. The three wicked step-sisters aren’t the only storybook villains she exposes along the way.

This is a myth-busting book. Lisa begins: “Once upon a time really smart people were completely convinced the world was flat. Then they learned that it wasn’t.” That’s the book in a nutshell – enunciate the myth, cast a new light on it, understand it, move on.

Wired for Story, out today from Ten Speed Press, won’t just help you navigate the treacherous waters of plotting. The most remarkable thing about the book is how it grounds storytelling conventions in hard facts about the human brain. Lisa draws on recent work by Lehrer, Pinker and Damasio, among others, to show you the connections between words on the page and the workings of the brain.

I don’t recommend a great many writing books to people who haven’t started a novel yet. Usually I stick to a couple – Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, and How to Write a Damn Good Novel, Part II, by James N. Frey. They’re solid. Having said that, Wired for Story is a book you’ll want to read, underline, re-read and highlight obsessively. I used to recommend two books on craft. From now on it’s three.

Lisa was generous enough to answer some of my questions on her book, the importance of writing, and to speculate on the outcome of a cage-match between two exuberant personalities. Read on.

Jul 8, 2012

What can Frankenstein teach you about writing?

If this storm develops as I hope, you’ll have plenty to be afraid of before the night’s over.
- from James Whale's Frankenstein (1931)

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus in a year without summer. Untimely snowfalls kept Mary, Percy, Byron and John Polidori cooped up in a mountain cabin for quite a while, travel being impractical and dangerous.

I’ve always felt that Frankenstein delves into the moral implications of unplanned parenthood. The creature is an unwanted child, the bastard offspring of desire and intellect. At heart Frankenstein is a deeply conservative text that hinges on this apparently simple notion: Just because you can do it, that doesn’t mean you should.

The gods punished Prometheus for teaching men how to use fire. Victor von Frankenstein was punished for creating life against “natural” law. In both cases a sacred trust is broken.

So, what can the tale of Frankenstein's creature reveal to you?

1. Sometimes you are the monster

Make no mistake, Victor von Frankenstein is the real villain here, not the creature. Victor’s the one who decides to create a sentient being without a thought to the consequences. And then – this is the worst of it – Victor rejects responsibility and abandons that creature. He reacts to his abortive child like a sociopathic male teenager.

2. Mad science is another name for magic

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
It takes bags of confidence to rock that hairstyle.
Frankenstein, says Brian Aldiss, is the original science-fiction novel: wherein a character sets events in motion and does his grim business in a laboratory. There is no quest-giver, no messenger from on high with orders from a supreme benevolent being.   

Today The Modern Prometheus reads like fantasy; what we know about the processes affecting cadavers, the workings of the nervous system, immune response and organ rejection – all this places the creature outside the realm of possibility. Decaying tissue would only reorganize itself into living matter if time moved backwards.[1]

No-one would think to reinvent Frankenstein without a nod or two to current scientific knowledge. But a) not all writers are scientists and b) scientists don’t know everything. Huge gaps remain in our present understanding of the universe and science is evolving. If you intend to wait until science is perfect – until its mission is complete – to get started on the ultimate science-fiction tale, well… I’d like some of that life-extending potion in your liquor cabinet.

Writing fiction about cutting-edge science, or developments that may be 10, 50, 200 years in the future, is not the same as reporting. Your readers-to-be will forgive you for getting things wrong, but they will admire you for what you get right. They will love you for writing beautifully. For cutting to the core of a real human drama. Thanks to that “realness,” Frankenstein has fans today.

Science evolves. Predictions fail. Focus on the characters, not on gadgets.

Christopher Lee as Frankenstein.
Is there a role this guy hasn't played?

3. It’s OK to explore the gray areas; morality is not black and white

Victor von Frankenstein isn’t exactly a bad person. He’s horrified at what he’s done. As for the monster, it is to be pitied more than feared. It comes to Victor expecting help, but what does it get instead? Revulsion.

I wonder how Frankenstein would have reacted to an undead frog of his own making. Would it have seemed less sacrilegious? Is the real “sin” creating “intelligent” life?

One thing we need to remember is that, in Judeo-Christian culture, the cultural framework that sustains Frankenstein, the template for human beings is the same creator god who made the world we live in. To reanimate a frog or a badger would have been OK, because they weren’t “made in the image of God.”[2]

Real hubris lies in profanation. Frankenstein is doomed because he decided to breathe life into a collection of random organs and body parts. The creature is not a human being but a travesty and it is this that terrifies Victor. He’s created life from garbage and now that the garbage expects something from its creator, he turns away. By its very existence, the monster desecrates the human template. Gnostic parable?[3] Maybe. At any rate, Victor saw fit to exert divine privilege, and this was his undoing.

All good stories show you characters on the cusp of right and wrong. People who aren’t sure about the next step but take it anyway. Make them pay the price, let them earn their rewards, and stop thinking in terms of good and evil.  

James Whale's Frankenstein movies, gripping as they were, sometimes pounded the "evil" key a tad too frantically.
Henry (sic) Frankenstein was very much the mad scientist, referring to the creature as a brute and verbally abusing
his faithful assistant.

[1] Time doesn’t really “move” and the illusion that we’re going forward is just that, an illusion; but I hope you’ll forgive my inaccuracy… Unless you want a treatise on the nature of time, which I am not qualified to produce.
[2] It’s safe to say that “animal rights” was a foreign notion to the Britons of 1816.
[3] A crude, brief summary: in Gnostic myth, human beings were not created by the Prime Mover nor any of its higher emanations, but by the child of cosmic rape, the god seeded in Sophia (Wisdom) by the Abyss. This god born of rape, Saklas (“the fool”), the Blind Idiot God, created matter and the Archons (the planets) to govern it; together they created human beings from clay. (Adam means “red earth.”) No thanks to the Blind Idiot God, human beings were infused with the divine spark, which to the Gnostics was the soul. The Gnostic believer saw the world as a prison and matter as the abode of evil. Curious offshoots of the Gnostic tree included the Ophites, Cainites and Bogomils. The Church Fathers complained that the Gnostics were too diverse and that every week they came up with a new falsehood, so it was very hard to keep track of them.     


What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

Jul 7, 2012

My Girlfriend's Iron Petticoat

One fine summer morning after the nuclear-economic apocalypse, Jim the plumber-magician got up and put on his rot-scented hazmat panzer suit.

Was the odor still strong enough keep the Chanel flies away? Sniff. Sniff again. Hm.

OK, he’d take his chances.


Here's something I asked myself: What genre is this?
Maybe Neo-Absurdist Retro-Futuristic Post-Apocalyptic Dieselpunk Science Fantasy. Would that work for you? 

All literature is fantastic because the purpose of literature is to tell artful lies about people who never existed. Save in the writer's imagination. Genre is a marketing tool. Don't let the exhausted tropes of any genre bonsai your imagination. 

Yes, yes, I just used bonsai as a verb. 

The Chanel flies are mutant flies drawn to sweet fragrances, especially that of Chanel no. 5. 

Jul 6, 2012

Leading Blind Bulls by the Nose

Jake left the house that morning to bend iron bars or at least try. His left hand was slipping away. 

Before sunup people toiled in the square. Cocks crowed, birds woke in small cages. 
A vulture of a man stood by Jake’s corner with a black portfolio under his arm. 

Jul 5, 2012

The Gift that Keeps on Hurting

No, I wasn’t expecting Zarah on my doorstep with a box full of scorpions.
“I need you to hold on to them for a while,” she said.
“What the hell are you doing with these?” I asked.
“Can’t talk about it,” she said, looking over her shoulder.

The Stone Castle
by Budi Satria Kwan

Like I said yesterday, I'm wreaking havoc at iwritereadrate.com with my Samurai Guide to Self-Editing like a Rock Star -- a short essay on lopping off heads while you play the guitar.

Earlier today I stumbled upon Jason Arnopp's blog, and found it very hard to tear myself away. Let him show you five ways to kill audience satisfaction.

Here's something I realized a short while ago: Don't start anything new at the bottom of a page, be it physical or virtual. The blank page is one of the few places where you can start at the top.

Jul 4, 2012

I Would Name All the Months After You

Despite his titanic self-control, the i-Baron fell in love with a simulated creature.
“Mirmur,” said he to one of his shadow editors, “I am descending into World 93.”
“I advise against it,” said Mirmur.
“Just impersonate me at the Panopticon until I return,” the i-Baron said.

I've been rereading the Dying Earth stories by Jack Vance. So this is, in a small way, a kind of tribute.

Samurai Mask by Iain Macarthur

Elsewhere on the net, the good folks at iwritereadrate have published my Samurai Guide to Editing like a Rock Star -- where I argue that good writing gets in the way of good writing. Yes, you read that right. Find out more.

Jul 1, 2012

What can Nosferatu teach you about writing?

Once upon a time was Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau – a German-born director who died in Santa Barbara, CA, because he chose his driver on the basis of looks rather than driving skills. An artist to the end.[1]

Let’s take a shadowy detour. A long time ago, there was this Irishman called Bram Stoker, who decided to mangle the hell out of Slavic and other Eastern European folk beliefs about rotting corpses that erupted from their coffins at night and shambled into their family homes to kill the rest of the family by mysterious means. So Bram Stoker wrote a book called Dracula that inspired a bevy of stage adaptations and derivative works.[2]

One such derivative work stood out.[3] It was called Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens: a symphony of horror. It’s about a naïve, optimistic young man who journeys into the petrified heart of the Carpathians and there finds an ancient, desiccated beast that looks like a man and pretends to be alive.

Why Nosferatu should stand out when other adaptations faded away, well --  for a start, there was the free publicity it got when Bram Stoker’s widow filed a copyright suit against Murnau. Thankfully, not all copies of the film were destroyed. You can watch it on YouTube right now.

Murnau’s Nosferatu is the quintessential vampire movie. It has influenced tons of music videos and garnered allusions in hundreds of movies (including Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula). Narrative, stripped down to the bone, is almost an afterthought in that movie – it’s the lighting, characterization and camera work that do most of the work. Every single frame was designed to keep your eyes glued to the screen.

A journey that begins in the mountains of Old Europe ends in a small bedroom at sunrise. Before Murnau shows you the sun, however, he all but drowns you in shadow.

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