Sep 29, 2012

When Life Gives You Shampoo, Wash Someone Else's Hair

There was an old ruined tower in the woods, and a girl too stubborn to die, who never left the tower though she could.

There was another girl who aged too quickly and lived two worlds away.

One night, both dreamed of a glass door in a cold cave. 

I've always imagined Rapunzel would look like this.
Photo by Stan Shuttleworth

Sep 28, 2012

10 Reasons Why Comedy is Incredibly Hard to Write

Photo by Surapan Boonthanom

One thing people don't get is that even bad jokes are hard to write. This is why I don't write comedy, or hardly ever try. It's always hardest to be funny when you're trying.

Three things must be in place for your jokes to work. You need context, you need delivery, but you also need a receptive audience. Some people find Jimmy Carr hilarious, but he can be incredibly offensive — and he's certainly not playing to a crowd that would enjoy... Cavemen?

Now, I didn't set out to explain what humor is, but I did write the ten awful vignettes below, which  — I hope — will deepen your appreciation of stand-up comedians and the people who write for them. Before you heckle anyone, remember this: it's not you upon that stage.

A man walks into a bar in climbing gear.
"You a mountain climber?" the bartender asks.
"Yes," says the man, "I'm climbing Mount Sobriety."
"So what're you doing in here?" asks the bartender.
"Gotta start at the bottom and make my way up."

A femur, a driver's license and a dirty sock walk into a bar.
The bartender commits himself to a mental hospital.

Three bartenders walk into a bar.
"You guys mountain climbers?" the bartender asks.
There is a shootout and Catwoman sneaks out the back.

Four bartenders walk into a morgue.
Zero bartenders walk out.

Five bartenders walk into an abandoned hospital.
Six bartenders walk out.

Six bartenders walk into the Amsterdam zoo.
The vultures are not amused.

(Have you ever stood really close to a vulture? They stink.)

Seven bartenders walk into a peep show.
The vultures are still not amused.

Eight bartenders walk into the Taj Mahal.
Somehow, this too fails to please the vultures.

Nine bartenders break into the vulture cage at the Amsterdam zoo.
"Fly, feathered friends, take to the skies!" They bellow in a paroxysm of fellow-feeling for those ugly birds that smell like a century of broken hopes. "You are free!"
Says one vulture to the other: "You take the four on the left."

Ten mountain climbers walk into a bar.
"Did you hear the news about those bartenders in the zoo, yesterday?" One of them asks the bartender.
"No, I didn't. What happened?" the bartender asks.
"They tried to turn all the vultures loose, and boy, those birds were hungry, 'cos they swallowed them whole. It was a regular smorgasbord. All they left was a femur, a driver's license and a dirty sock."

by John Gould

Sep 27, 2012

Ping, Pong, Daddy Knows that You Are Wrong

Mariusz Kreisler came up with a brilliant plan to reform his effeminate son. Holy shitstains in paradise, he said to himself, landing a downward punch on his mahogany desk, what he needs is prostitutes and strippers. Lots of them. Real women, not those feminist he-boys he hangs out with.


Because this happened. Tip o' the hat to James Hansard.


And late one summer, @InstantFiction had this gem to offer:

Let's wrap this up with a gorgeous illustration from an alchemical book, because why not.

Sep 26, 2012

Noah's Sermon to the Cannibals of Planet X

Even the ship's motherly hum died down and the silence woke me. All the humans were dead, resorbed into the entrails of the Magdala.

It was a 12-mile walk to the aft where the others lay, 12 miles of unlit corridor and crawlspace,12 miles of sealed doors.

by Teddy Nash

Things that have recently come to my attention:

SkyAtlantic wants to showcase some of the writing talent out there. They're running a backstory challenge based on a couple of new channel idents. So take to Twitter and look up #SkyAtlanticStories.

(Please be advised that you can't access the videos if you live outside the UK/Republic of Ireland.)

Pink Tentacle brings you two dozen delightful creatures depicted in a Japanese handscroll, the Bakemono Zukushi.

Doesn't it look gleeful?

Why don't we follow that with an admonition from Donald Duck on the dangers of wartime sex?


Yesterday I wrote that "bad movies... don't ask you to think, only that you submit to them." It's pretty much the same with books, isn't it?

Sep 25, 2012

What can bad movies teach you about writing?

a still from Howling III - The Marsupials (1987)

What is a bad movie?

Let's deflect that question by asking another one.
How putrid must a stinking glob of gelatinous offal become, before you decide your nostrils have been raped?

A still from Basket Case (1982)
Your body comes with a decent set of pre-installed physiological responses to harmful stimuli. Because, you know, nature isn’t a complete jerk. Our primate ancestors learned to stay away from bad odors and bad colors; those who tried black, furry fruit against their better judgment and despite their cousins’ warnings… Some of them are not our ancestors.

Fruit ripens, and rots soon after. In a way you could see rot as a surfeit of ripeness, as the natural sugars reach a climax, so to speak, and begin to ferment. (At this stage, they become particularly interesting to moose, but that’s neither here nor there.)

A bad movie is a cultural artifact that went straight from green to rotten. It never passed through an edible stage.

At times it’s hard to tell good from bad cinema because, let’s be honest, movies aren’t food and you can grow on a terrible diet. Most people will never know the difference between Inception and Eyes Wide Shut. [1] Once, a PhD student reacted to my mention of Ingmar Bergman with “Bergman is boring!” (That was her appraisal of someone Woody Allen calls the greatest filmmaker in History.)

But that doesn’t mean it’s all subjective. Some movies are indeed better than others -- this is art, not democracy.

A bona fide crap movie must present at least 4 of the traits below:
a) no-name/no-talent actors
b) ludicrous premise
c) terrible script
d) pretense, which includes
            i) plagiarizing older movies
            ii) recycling old crap believing this is somehow ironic
            iii) trying to overwhelm you, the viewer, with ‘meaningful’ ideas
            iv) poor attempts at elevated speech
e) a staggering lack of originality
f) a staggering excess of originality
h) gratuitous sex and violence
i) laughable special effects

Shock factor alone doesn't mean a movie is bad. Take Cronenberg's coldly, subtly violent Spider, the film that showed me Ralph Fiennes could act, and how. It is the story of a man who misremembers his childhood. Spider's alcoholic father killed his wife and brought a whore to the conjugal bed. Years later, Spider still dwells on his past.  Stuck in a halfway house for the mentally unstable, he plots to get out; things take a nasty turn. (I won't spoil the movie for you.)

Fiennes in Spider (2002)

Spider serves up a fetid broth of bodily fluids, spousal abuse and crushing loneliness, and yet all the dirty strands come together in a delicate web of meaning. All that you see obeys the principle of relevance.  

The superb Miranda Richardson co-stars as the prostitute.

You know what they say about ideas and execution? It’s execution that counts. Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), shot on a $134,000 budget [2], was nevertheless a worthy exercise in the use of shadow and suspense. Cat People doesn’t show you anything you don’t need to see, and obscures much of what you’d want to see.

Ingmar Bergman's Persona [3] freezes you to the bone, turns you inside out. It relies on camera work, refined dialogue and subtle, ultra-professional acting (the kind that makes you forget you're watching a performance) and -- most importantly -- the viewer's intelligence and sensitivity. Common to all bad movies is that they don't ask you to think, only that you submit to them.

Bibi Andersson (front) and Liv Ullman in Persona (1966)

Elegance is knowing when to leave things out; bad movies thrive on excess. They say yes to everything.

Like, can we have katanas popping out of girls’ butts?


Can we have machine-gun nipples?


Can we have giant robots smashing buildings that bleed?


I am obviously – OBVIOUSLY – because everybody’s seen it, right? – referring to Noboru Iguchi’s masterpiece, RoboGeisha. RG clearly suffers from f), a staggering excess of originality. Geishas turning into mini-tanks? Assassins shooting corrosive milk out of their nipples? Come on.

This is what happens when you don't kill your darlings. Must every story become an orgy of blood and mayhem? Maybe we should stick to this principle: You can include anything you want in your story, but you can't include everything.

So your budget is unlimited, your imagination -- inexhaustible. It makes no difference whether Krovelzaxx of Kroth ruled ten, or ten thousand planets; or whether Juarez Merkel packed one or two pantropic ablators. As a writer, your currency is time, not dollars. But at some point your story begins to rot. All that sweet, sweet plot juice reaches a climax, you know? And then it begins to ferment.

Because this subject is so huge, there's a part two now. 
Read on.

[1] The difference being that Inception is a pretentious, horribly self-important movie, whose premise was lifted wholesale from a Donald Duck comic. Believe it or not.
[2] $1,772,442 adjusted for inflation. To put things into perspective, 1408, starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, cost approximately 25 million; the movie takes place mostly in a hotel room, with few actors, and employs special effects rather discreetly. An utter train wreck of a horror movie, Pumpkinhead, cost $3,5M to make. And yet, it shows you a lot more than you'd like.
[3] Because I have to cram at least two references to Sweden into each and every blog post.


Anything with Adam Sandler in it
The Gingerdead Man
The Spirit
Alien Resurrection
Anything with Rob Schneider in it
The Passion of the Christ
Anything with Jack Black in it
Transformers I, II, III, IV through LXXVI

You've probably noticed that I included a handful of blockbusters. I don't want to give you the impression that I look down my nose at popular fare, or campaign for creatively bankrupt pieces like Sleep. There's more to life and cinema than the art-house sublime, but film is a human endeavor and an art form. It must provide a vehicle for individuals and their vision; not put on offensively vacant clown shows. That vacancy, that emptiness has so corrupted the art of film, it's no wonder more and more people shun the box office.  
Time and again, Hollywood has proven that a huge budget can't buy you taste or sensitivity.

By the way, if you use your phone in a movie theater, somebody should put fire ants in your underpants.

Or this.

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. 
Read more in this series.

Sep 21, 2012

The Man with the Diamond Mustache

He just showed up one morning with a monkey on his shoulder, towing a mahogany box the size of a child's coffin.

Jeannie seized Piper's hand.
"Who's that?" Jeannie asked.
"An organ grinder," said Piper, looking down at her sister. "Maybe a cannibal."

This gentleman is probably not a cannibal.

That Brain Parasite Is my Bestest Friend

I'd like to say I punched two producers in the face last night. Maybe just the one? Woke up in jail, which is better than a hospital, I guess.

Coming home, my furniture was gone. And my girlfriend. The dogs, too.

Wait. Is that a live lobster?

Live Lobster
By Theo A. Rosenblum

Based on a true story. (Well, not really, and the part about the lobster isn't based on anything but the existence of lobsters.)

By 'true story' I mean that time when Uwe Boll challenged Michael Bay to a punch-out. In case you've never seen anything by Uwe Boll, I recommend House of the Dead. Genius line: "This book is really old. It might help us."

When you start replacing nouns you realize just how deep that line is. Let's try a few variations:
This elephant is really old. It might help us.
This Pinto is really old. It might help us.
This thimble is really old. It might help us.
This balaclava is really old. It might help us.
This gazpacho is really old. It might help us.

See? No matter what you do, it always makes sense. Good on you, Mr. Boll. It's a shame they wouldn't let you direct that Warcraft movie.

Sep 19, 2012

Conquering Breath

Sometimes, lying still in that iron lung, I felt like an unwanted child, my mother a tube of glass and steel. Keeping me alive, unlovingly.

A nurse told me my father was in Tibet. Killing dragons, I thought, because all distant places were home to dragons.


I don't know about dragons, but there is a peculiar art form in Tibet which requires bodily remains. 

Here are some more carved Tibetan skulls.

My Life is All Previews

There was a man in Peoria who walked invisible dogs and wore invisible magic glasses that let him see two weeks into the future. He hated calendars and loved liquor.

They called him Henry. Henry had two daughters who worried too much and feared Henry's secrets.

Sep 18, 2012

What can Farscape teach you about writing?

Farscape (1999-2003) was an Australian space opera about a merry band of interplanetary misfits. Warren Ellis described it as "The story of one American's descent into Australia's BDSM scene." Others have called it the anti-Star Trek.

The series was developed by Rockne O'Bannon and Brian Henson, Jim Henson's youngest son who, in case you didn't know, was the guy who put the Muppets on bikes.

Moving on.
First there is the ship of adventure herself, Moya the Leviathan, a pacifist biomechanical being created in a mysterious cosmic region, steered by a perfect altruist known only as Pilot, whose flesh is bound with Moya's. Only under exceptional circumstances can one survive without the other; separation is mutilation. Moya and Pilot exist in symbiosis, with Pilot acting as Moya's spokesperson.

Moya too is a runaway, having broken a control collar to escape her captors. The Peacekeepers used her as a prisoner transport.

Moya's crew:

There's Zhaan, a blue plant person and self-styled anarchist, who for the first couple of seasons takes up the healer/spiritual guide slot.

Zhaan, played by Virginia Hey

Pilot was immature and agreed to a clandestine bonding with Moya, replacing another, more experienced member of his species. Pilot sometimes regrets the deal he made.

Pilot, voiced by Lani Tupu
and operated by
Sean Masterson, Tim Mieville, Matt McCoy,
Mario Halouvas and Fiona Gentle.

Ka D'Argo, big man with a short temper, tentacles on his head and a darting, venomous tongue.

Ka D'Argo, played by Anthony Simcoe

Chiana: thief, seductress, survivor. While not exactly callous, her emotional immaturity often leads her, and the rest of Moya's crew, down dangerous paths.

Chiana, played by Gigi Edgley

Rygel, deposed amphibian emperor, gluttonous and venal, who farts helium if you stress him out.

Rygel, voiced by Jonathan Hardy
and operated by
John Eccleston, Sean Masterson,  Tim Mieville,
Matt McCoy, Mario Halouvas and Fiona Gentle.

Aeryn Sun, played by Claudia Black*. Sun was ejected from the Peacekeepers, a militaristic, ultra-regimented police force of Sebaceans who look like humans because... because that's what Sebaceans are. There's a bit of ancient astronaut backstory to the Peacekeepers, but Farscape never dwells on it.
*Who only rarely had the chance to display her range as an actress on the show.

Claudia Black, left, plays Aeryn Sun.

John Crichton of Earth, fish out of water, whose unique gift it is to possess none, save for human adaptability. Moya's crew regard him as daft or insane. Over time he earns their respect.

Ben Browder, right, plays John Crichton.

So, what can Farscape teach you about writing a novel, story or play? Let's take a look at some of the principles the show adhered to.

Sep 14, 2012

The Book of Shining Mazes

Troy was in the garage practicing with his ponce metal band when they broke in through the kitchen door.

Whoever they were, they didn't take anything.

They did leave a piece of paper by the microwave, folded into a makeshift envelope. With a bloody premolar inside.

The Unsleeping Dream
by Sandra Dieckmann

From M. John Harrison's blog post, "Paragraph from a manuscript found in room 121, the Ambiente Hotel":
Your gift to the reader isn’t a lot of words. It’s to have a grasp of syntax & inflexion that lets you load more into the text than it seems to be able to accomodate.

Sep 12, 2012

Descent to Planet Hamburger

We all felt rather peckish after two hundred years of travel.
"Ah, bless the Grumshackle Files," I said, looking out the main viewport.
Turkanna stood at my side, grinding her teeth.
"I wonder how they turned out," she said. "I like the challenge of a cultured meal."


This is tangentially inspired by Tobe Hooper's 1985 film, Lifeforce. The script was penned by none other than the admirable Dan O'Bannon, of Alien fame. 

While we're on the subject, did you know O'Bannon collaborated with Alejandro Jodorowsky on a version of Dune that will never see the light of day? It was going to be superbly outrageous and bizarre (among other ballsy moves, Salvador DalĂ­ would have played the Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV) and would, I'm sure, have proved more enduring than David Lynch's adaptation -- which is pleasing to the eye but mangled beyond hope by the producers. Understandably, David Lynch disowned it.

To wrap this up, I invite you to spend a couple of minutes exploring outer space with Sander van den Berg.

Turbopsycho Chicken and the Soldiers of Insanity

by Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo
Fergus pointed at the chicken and nodded, some cryptic awe in his large green eyes that were too far apart.
"Is that the one?" I asked in a whisper.
"Yes," he said. "She hops onto my bed at night and sends me nightmares." He paused. "Her beak is two different colors."

Sep 11, 2012

What can Ghostbusters teach you about writing?

You know how I wrote about writer's block last week? Well, sometimes it gets to me, too. But I got over it.

Ghostbusters is a 1984 film directed by Canadian director Ivan Reitman (b. 1946 in Slovakia) detailing the exploits of four men who've cornered the market on ghost extermination. It ranks 28th on the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs, sandwiched between There's Something About Mary and This is Spinal Tap, believe it or not. 

The film was co-written by Harold Ramis, erstwhile joke director on Playboy magazine*, and Dan Aykroyd, whose lifelong interest in the paranormal had an influence on Ghostbusters.
*fun fact: after a round of rejections, the Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451 was serialized in Playboy.

Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis star in Ghostbusters as three parapsychologists who are short on money and career opportunities. Having lost their positions at Columbia University, the trio go freelance, enlisting the aid of Winston Zeddmore, which the original script intended as the smartest, most capable person in the team, and Janine Melnitz, a resourceful Brooklyn Heights lady who seems to love the color red.

No, not her. The other one.

What makes the film so enduring is that, underneath all that parody and rapid-fire banter, it advances an unsettling theme which is hard to discuss beyond the bounds of comedy. Ghostbusters says terrible things about us and the kind of society we're building.

Are you ready to proceed?    

Sep 7, 2012

The Nature of Numbers Compels Me

He spent the night out in the field counting the corncobs. He counted the birds that shot unexpected out of the green stalks and up into the whitewashed morning sky, calling him names in bird language.

There was much to count and little time. And sirens closing in already.

Matta "Release The Freq" from Ad Noiseam on Vimeo.

I imagine this character would see the world as a matrix -- patterns holding patterns like Russian nesting dolls made out of numbers. Numbers like Euler's.

While the Sleeping Irons Lie

Gnol the blacksmith sprang out of bed with uncommon desire pounding on her heart.
I'm going to forge the biggest sword in the world for the greatest hero in the world, she thought.
"Stop thinking out loud," her wife grumbled. "You're not seriously going to the forge at 16 AM?"

Horizontal Galaxy
by Vangel Naumovski (bio)

Sep 5, 2012

Hollywood, Meet Mare Marginis

The President placed both hands over the thick report on his desk. He feared it might fly away.

"1775, Andrews?" he asked. "Is this true?"
"Yes, sir. That's the date they left."
"Left our moon," the President said, rising from his chair. "Who were they?"


And the aliens would all look like a certain British actress, one of the exponents of androgyny on the silver screen --

Here she is, Tilda Swinton, looking a bit like a CGI version of herself and channeling Maria Falconetti in Dreyer's 1928 film, The Passion of Joan of Arc.

So you can see for yourself, here's the long, sublime sequence where Joan dies. Warning: there's a rather large, tumescent nipple around the one-minute mark, in case you're against ladies' nipples and would rather not look at that sort of thing.

Am I the only one who sees the similarities? 

P.S.: Joan of Arc, some say, was an abnormally developed male. You could claim her, I suppose, as an early Western representative of the third gender. While we're on the subject of gender identity, you might want to explore the concept of sworn virgins in the Balkans.

Sep 3, 2012

What Can Writer's Block Teach You About Writing?

You know what’s ridiculous?

My motto for this blog is “beat the tar out of writer’s block,” yet I’ve never written about writer’s block or suggested specific strategies to overcome it.

You know what else is ridiculous?

Dancing hippos.

I believe in the existence of writer's block; oh, yes, I am an ardent believer in it. Writer’s block is just as real as a couple of hippos stomping through Swan Lake.

So… how do you overcome something that doesn’t exist?