Aug 31, 2012

Based on a True Legend

I lost my job as producer of a morning show, my saxophone got stolen and my wife slapped me with divorce papers, all in under two hours.

So: clarinet? Damn it, Francis. Get it together.

I figured I owed myself a moment of clarity. I called my drug dealer.

Because drug-induced hallucinations are, like, virtual reality and they help you
think more clearly.

The Capture of the Feather King
by Nik Dudukovic

Aug 29, 2012

3 Story Prompts Disguised as Movie Loglines

Flower Myth
by Paul Klee

A reincarnated terrorist.

A time-traveling Amish widow.

And a box that steals whispers.


She spent most of her time standing on her head.

He only had eyes for the stars.

A three-legged dog and a car accident bring them together.


A silent alien spaceship orbits the Earth.

A South African lesbian wakes from a coma, unable to speak.

A mysterious link is forged.

Maybe We're on the Wrong Safari

by SilentOp

There’s no toilet paper left in the building. The guys in Procurement squirreled away every last roll, the bastards, and they turned the cafeteria into a fort. Hyenas pace the lobby day and night. Real ones that smell like the devil’s butt.

Aug 27, 2012

What can Poltergeist teach you about writing?

Poltergeist (1982) is one of the most effective horror movies ever made. It follows a series of supernatural events affecting the Freelings, a family that lives in the planned community of Cuesta Verde (“Green Coast”).

Whatever entity is responsible for these events, little Carol Anne Freeling seems to be the focus of its attention. Carol Anne is capable of communication with ‘the TV people’ — her vitality and innocence draw the spirits out. What begins as a number of apparently meaningless, daytime tricks turns into a full-blown terror campaign. It’s almost as if the entities wanted to demonstrate their harmlessness and gain the family’s trust.

The most violent explosions of supernatural energy occur at night: melting faces, man-eating trees, a troop of ghosts gliding down the staircase. The film’s climax takes place after dinnertime, plunging the Freeling family into a chaos of hairy spectral beasts, slimy closet tentacles and a cemetery’s worth of coffins. Cuesta Verde, as it turns out, was built over a graveyard and the denizens of the necropolis are none too pleased. Their headstones were moved, but not their remains.       

Why is the story of Poltergeist so sinister? What elements and techniques did Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg employ in their script just to mess with our minds?

Aug 24, 2012

My Life as a Statue in Medusa’s Lair

by Arnold Böcklin
Great. It’s that bird again, the one that pecks at my forehead. Sometimes I dream I can move and I catch it. I wring its neck. My torment is over.

The mistress can talk to the bird. She allows it to plague me.

She is agitated today -- something about sailors.

Aug 23, 2012

Tremble, Cottonopolis, for the Raging Pixies Are Coming

The diggers, they love to dig -- and most of all to dig up our homes and tombs. They crushed the Queen’s skull and moved the rest of her bones to a place of desecration.

’Twas 1889 if you go by their short, ridiculous calendar that follows the day star.

The Excavation of the Manchester Ship Canal
by Benjamin Williams Leader

Aug 22, 2012

Park Rangers of the Seventh Millennium

Paris, 6099. Claudenka, competitive poacher, tiptoes around a tomato den. Rags of nanite fog curl around the pseudo-trees as she deploys her snares; the tomatoes hardly stir in quartersleep.

Claudenka catches a layered scent in the air. Camera-sharks?


For an added futuristic feel, have a listen.

Aug 20, 2012

What can Gauguin teach you about writing?

Self-portrait, 1888

I am a great artist and I know it.
Letter to his wife, Mette (Tahiti, March 1892)

Well, here we are without the slightest doubt in the presence of a virgin creature with savage instincts. With Gauguin blood and sex prevail over ambition.
-- Van Gogh 

He is Gauguin, the savage who hates the burden of our civilization, a sort of Titan… who prefers to see the sky red
-- August Strindberg

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was a French Post-Impressionist painter. He was born in Paris to Clovis Gauguin, a journalist, and Alina Chazal, daughter of Flora Tristan, a feminist and proto-socialist who came from a prominent family in Peru. In 1850, the Gauguins left France for that South American country. Clovis would die would die en route to Peru; Alina, Paul and his sister would stay with Paul’s uncle in Lima for four years.

Paul’s mother would go out wearing the traditional one-eyed veil of Lima, a style that allowed women to flirt, gossip and walk the streets alone without fearing for their reputation. In Spanish, they were called las tapadas limeñas, “covered-up women of Lima.” British critic Waldemar Januszczak, then working for Channel 4, speculated that “this must have been the first of the colorful female costumes that were to haunt [Gauguin’s] imagination.”


Gauguin would return to France at the age of seven. Though Peruvian Spanish was by then his first language, he learned French and excelled in school.
At seventeen he would join the merchant navy, sail the world for three years and then join the French navy to sail for two more. Not one to waste a perfectly good pair of sea legs, Gauguin would spend a good deal of his time cruising the Pacific.

Les Alyscamps, 1888
There was, however, an eleven-year intermission between the two exploratory periods in Gauguin’s life. Having spurned the oceans for the Paris Bourse, Gauguin would become the image of a successful businessman, marry a Danish woman, beget five children and move to Denmark where he failed to sell French tarpaulins to Danes he couldn’t speak to.

It was Paul’s wife, Mette-Sophie Gad, and her family who asked him to leave after 11 years. Gauguin had decided to paint full-time and the Gad clan would have no truck with artists and such. This would mark the beginning of Gauguin’s Polynesian adventure. Tahiti offered the backdrop for his violently sensuous pictures of a paradise which was mostly in his head, and his alleged trysts with the supposedly innocent and uncomplicated Tahitians spice up the legends around Gauguin, the man. Sexuality in the former French colony drew from a forceful palette: village elders would point out a passing woman to Gauguin and tell him, grab that one. Or so he wrote in his book Noa Noa.

So, what can Paul Gauguin teach you about yourself as a writer, and how you should follow your instincts?    

Aug 18, 2012

Music from the Bowels of Taxidermied Songbirds

Choubatsu hadn’t been around five-year-olds for a while. Were they supposed to grow horns?

The two little boys were building a circular tower out of wooden blocks, chattering away as their English devolved into a mix of grunts, clicks and trills.

Well, Choubatsu thought, at least they look happy.

Love of Seven Dolls, I
by Kate Baylay

Do you read my weekly series, What can they teach you about writing?
Maybe you've missed a couple of posts and would like an easy way to find them?

I've got great news for you. Now there's a single page indexing all the articles, updated as new ones come out.

I'm talking 60,000+ words here, on tons of impressive people and memorable characters: from Carl Sagan to Billie Holiday to one of my all-time favorites, Darth Vader.

From painters like Max Ernst and René Magritte to iconic figures like Superman.

Jump in.

Aug 17, 2012

3 Reasons to Write About Buses and Not Ghosts


The other day, I misread a headline. The roof split above me, the earth groaned, locusts with machine guns, blah blah blah.

Now comes the hard part – my self-imposed punishment, which includes wearing red briefs and writing this blog post.

1. Buses have wheels. Why are wheels important?

For starters, buses would be highly inefficient without them.

Prior to the arrival of European explorers/invaders, the wheel was unknown in the Americas. The peoples of the New World had no access to large beasts of burden* that could effectively draw wheeled vehicles.
*There were horses in North America before humans first came to the continent, but they were hunted to extinction by early settlers from Siberia. Horses would be reintroduced by Europeans thousands of years later.

2. Lots of different people take the bus for different reasons.

I imagine people are your primary interest as a writer. Millions of stories hop onto the bus every day. A city bus is a great place for people watching, because everybody looks so pensive. They’re not putting on a show, not trying to impress anybody. The contrast between locals and tourists is also worth analyzing.

3. Buses actually exist. As for ghosts, nobody’s really sure.

You can learn a lot more about buses than you can about ghosts.

A ghost is a shadow, fictive or otherwise, of a person who used to be alive.

A bus was never alive. It is a machine. With an engine. You can learn how to build such engines, but you cannot go to school and learn how to make a ghost. Not at this point.

A Routemaster used as a café in Brick Lane, London

Besides, you’ll be surprised at what a little research uncovers:

·         Bus is the clipped form of omnibus, a Latin word meaning “for all”
·         The first known public bus line was launched by Blaise Pascal in 1662
·         The last horse bus in London was retired in 1914, imagine that
·         The Routemaster, London’s popular double-decker (now retired) began production in 1954 and remained in service until 2005; of the 2,876 built only a thousand remain. The “Borismaster” is its rather charmless replacement
·         In 1935, Paramount Pictures had this unusual bus made for a movie.


I’m not really telling you not to write about ghosts, and I enjoy a good ghost story as much as the next person – I love supernatural horror movies – but, before you go digging in the fossil strata of the underworld, spend some time learning about the wonders that surround you. The living are responsible for a lot more strangeness than the dead. Could ghosts build these?

Aug 15, 2012

Your Computer Ate my Homework and Now It's Eating Me

source: ESO/L. Calçada/M.Kornmesser

When a stranger hands you an ultra-thin laptop and tells you it is powered by a black hole 23,000 light-years away, what do you do? Call a mental hospital?

When they tell you to guard it with your life and vanish in a puff of red smoke, what then?

My Vacation as a Werewolf

My hands are beginning to look like feet and I’m worried -- this is taking too long. Marline now refuses to call the morphing agent. That’s bad. I can’t pick up the phone except with my mouth… Using the touch screen? Forget it!

They should make phones for large dogs.

Aug 13, 2012

What can Hellraiser teach you about writing?

A puzzle box that opens doors and summons torturers from another world.

A polygonal god that watches over an Escherian maze, where pleasure-seekers are punctured, bled and reinvented as genderless odalisques.

“This is a holocaust waiting to wake itself.”

A concise overview: the horrors began with a novella by Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart. This book would serve as the basis for the 1987 film, Hellraiser. I'll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum.

In the film, one Frank Cotton travels to Morocco where he finds a puzzle box, the Lament Configuration, built by a French toymaker centuries ago. Returning to his grandmother’s house in England with the box, Cotton sets up an altar in a vacant room and goes about the business of luring the Cenobites into our dimension. Once the puzzle is solved, the misshapen entities walk into reality through cracks in the walls, with their panoply of hooks, needles and chains.

The Cenobites, “the Order of the Gash,” do not appear as demons initially, though looks might deceive. As the lead Cenobite later tells Kirsty Cotton (Frank’s niece), they are

Explorers in the further regions of experience. Demons to some. Angels to others.

Kirsty Cotton, portrayed by Ashley Laurence.
Larry Cotton, Frank’s brother, moves to England with his wife Julia and his daughter Kirsty, who finds a room for herself. It appears that her relationship with Julia is strained.

Larry and Julia get rid of Frank’s belongings, believing him dead or incarcerated in some exotic location, and settle into the very home where Frank conducted his summoning ritual. Larry accidentally cuts his hand on a nail as he lugs a mattress upstairs. He goes to Julia in a near-panic and the blood he spills on the floorboards allows Frank to come back from the truly exotic location where he was imprisoned.

So, what can the Hellraiser films teach you about writing?

Aug 11, 2012

If Baboons Wore Pants, They Too Would Build Spaceships

My artwork has infected me. I’m turning blue, turning yellow, turning red. I call my agent.
“Marcy? Book the show,” I yell into the mouthpiece. “Book it now.”
“Oh, it’s you.” She doesn’t sound too thrilled.
“Anything wrong?” I ask.
“Besides you sleeping with my daughters, you mean?”


Wikipedia: Performance Art
I've selected a couple of examples for you. 

Aug 10, 2012

Climbing Mount Invisible

She can’t see you unless you stop moving. He is deaf, but one of his multiple personalities can hear.

Call them the Unpredictable Duo. Together, they fight crime.


Akinetopsia, or motion blindness, is a neurological disorder. Sufferers can’t see movement and experience the world as a series of stills. 

I don’t think a congenitally deaf person (hearing loss below 90 dB) would be able to develop a hearing personality, however, as dissociative identity disorder is anything but magic. 

People with disabilities occupy an almost interstitial place in popular fiction, which reflects our current idolatry of the exceptionally beautiful and able-bodied -- nowhere more evident than in superhero films and comics. One recent setback was having Barbara Gordon regain use of her legs and become Batgirl again, reversing years of character development as Oracle. That was not good.

Characters with disabilities have potential. I'd go so far as to say there's limitless potential in their struggles.

Aug 8, 2012

Octopi in the Sky with Binoculars

The bipeds were at it again. Boom, there went the fishes and seabirds. I filed a new protest.
“Nothing we can do,” my supervisor said.
“We could turn this around if we wanted to,” I said.
His arms turned an angry purple.
“Our ancestors are down there!” I said.


Inspired by the videos below - five men at atomic ground zero, which is a piece of nutfucks insanity if you ask me,

and a time-lapse map of every nuclear explosion since 1945. Things start heating up in the 1950s but, past 1961, it looks like we're trying to barbecue the world. No wonder the Space Brothers are keeping us at arm's length.

Before you ask: Yes, evolved time-traveling octopuses. That's what this prompt is really about. 

Aug 7, 2012

The Patron Saint of Peanut Butter and Jealousy

Peyton opened the package and saw her own face inside it. With a half-grunt she let it fall to the tiled floor.
Her husband walked into the kitchen, cleaning his hands on an oily rag.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
“He sent me another mirror,” Peyton said.

Aug 6, 2012

I Am Beyond Brilliant: Will My Novel Write Itself?

So You’re the Greatest Genius Who Ever Lived and You Want to Write a Novel

Some people need tons of advice to write a novel and that’s OK, because they are not especially gifted.

But YOU are not “some people.” Your skull throbs achingly as the cranial dome threatens to come apart – you are literally bursting with ideas and creative vitality.

However, even a paragon like yourself must accept one simple truth: nobody’s going to write your book for you. OK? Now, if the key to a good novel is a good outline, it follows that a brilliant outline can only lead to a brilliant novel. 

I’ve devised a meta-plan to take you from the inception stage and into a career so world-shattering it’ll make the black hole at the center of the galaxy look like the one at the center of your kitchen sink – lesser beings than yourself call it “the drain.”

Shall we begin?

Aug 3, 2012

I Would Dance, But My Silver Heart Is Still

That morning I sneaked out because you didn’t love me anymore. Well, your body didn’t. You weren’t lying next to me; just a dead body breathing.
I called mom. She was in Argentina.
Out on the street I hailed a cab.

Somehow you’d traveled to another continent in your sleep.

Aug 2, 2012

Should You Name All Your Aliens 'Billy'? And Other Crimes Against Writing

A quick way to come up with exotic/alien names:

There is none. But there is a simple method. Read on.

Maybe you’re the sort of person who’d like to call an alien character EeeeeRRRRaaaarrrOOOO, or something of the sort. Well, I won’t stop you, but consider this:

1. Nobody knows how to pronounce EeeeeRRRRaaaarrrOOOO.

Assuming your book/story is successful, you’ll spend the rest of your life explaining to people that,

a)      to get the Eeeee bit right, you have to make like a horny dolphin (or something)
b)      RRRR sounds like a Scotsman having a stroke,
c)       aaaarrr approaches the grating wail of a police siren, and
d)      OOOO must be pronounced as if you were trying to swallow a live conger eel


And I haven’t even touched the issue of capitalization. Better not go there. 

2. It’ll be hard to keep track of all the Eeeees, RRRRs, aaaarrrs and OOOOs.

Obviously you could just type ERO all the way through to the end of your manuscript, and replace all the EROs with EeeeeRRRRaaaarrrOOOO when you’re done. (I can’t put my finger on the reason why, but this EeeeeRRRRaaaarrrOOOO dude is growing on me.)

But that’s placing too much faith in technology. If the word ‘hero’ occurs at any point in your text, it’ll be turned into hEeeeeRRRRaaaarrrOOOO. So, best avoid the words hero, zero, and erotic.

Can you keep all of that in your brain? I can’t. I’d slip and I know it.

3. EeeeeRRRRaaaarrrOOOO probably speaks an exotic language like OghNwOghNVIIohgn.

In all likelihood, he, she, or it finds human language difficult and keeps importing OghNwOghNVIIohgn words into Basic Normal Space Standard I (aka English), so that most conversations aboard the Starship Dynamica go something like this:


Stapleton, do you know where my kwagnzother is?

Space Captain Stapleton:

Your what?


My kwagnzother. You know, the thing to scrape my f’noo’galRRAAA.

Space Captain Stapleton:

Uh, I haven’t seen it.

(widening its qanboozers and flaring its vwonk’o’jiiii):

You’re sitting on it!

Space Captain Stapleton:

Oh, shit. What do I do now?


Don’t move. If you try to stand up, it’ll want to kroinkle your goinglers.

Space Captain Stapleton 
(sweating, holding very still):

By ‘goinglers,’ you mean my…


That fleshy appendage between your locomotive limbs.

So how do you come up with convincing names for aliens?
(Without going overboard, that is)

Most names mean something, even if that meaning is now buried deep. Still, you can draw inspiration from the onomastic knowledge we have preserved. A quick online search yields page after page of first & family names, be they Native American, Serbian, Polish or Georgian — I could list dozens of nationalities here. You get the idea.

There is a trick to it, after all

Because names have meanings, and meaning is drawn from experience, names reflect

a)      the environment in which they exist or the time they were created. Remember the Israeli couple that named their daughter ‘Like’?
b)      unchanging circumstances that define us, the human collective. Names like Robert (‘fame-bright’), Philip (‘friend to horses’) or Mary/Maria/Marie/Mari (‘mother-queen’) are still around. There are more beautiful examples, like the Yoruba name Ayodele, ‘joy has come home.’ Or Natsuko (Japanese), which combines ‘summer’ and ‘child.’

So if you’re struggling to name your aliens, think about the origin and history of their species, as well as the current situation on their world.

I’ve been playing a game called Torchlight and all the dungeon minibosses (goblins, giant spiders, walking trees) have names like Facekicker the Damned and Eyereaper the Gluttonous. It’s their job to mash you to a pulp, so those monikers seem rather appropriate.

What you call yourself is one of the strongest connections between you and the world you live in. I’m certain that EeeeeRRRRaaaarrrOOOO is a productive member of society on the planet uUU, and a kind parent to its osmotic spawn, EeeeeYu, TreeeeYu, and Blort. On Earth, our friend finds it hard to introduce itself without setting the air on fire and choking people to death because they mispronounce EeeeeRRRRaaaarrrOOOO in terribly offensive ways.

They say you should include pictures in your blog
posts, so here's another one. 
Don’t make an alien too alien unless the story is about its profound and undeniable difference. About the gap that separates us from them. Begin by giving the alien a name people can pronounce — your readers will thank you.

Do that, or break all the rules and surprise us. Surprise yourself. I won’t send the kwagnzother after you.  


Aug 1, 2012

Make Your Shadow Mine

We gathered at night before the red ruins, armed only with our voices. The Queen slept underground.

By the stone door, Craneflower spoke.
“Who will swallow the Queen?” she asked. “You, Rubywind?”
“I’m not strong enough,” I said. “My moon hangs too low.”
“It has to be you,” said Craneflower.

To me Craneflower and Rubywind come from a dying civilization of Martian elves that use song as a weapon, but you can reimagine them anyway you like.