Sunday, March 17, 2019

WHAT IT IS week ending 3.16.2019

A recap of things I've read, watched, listened to, ingested in some fashion, with a focus (hopefully) on how I can apply (read:  steal) any lessons gleaned (or tricks of the trade) to my own writing.  So, let's do this!


VISUAL MEDIA --



Columbo, "Blueprint for Murder":
This was another great episode, the final episode of season 1, written again by Steven Bochco.  In this case, an egotistical architect, Elliot Markham, murders a client of his, a rich Texas businessman, Bo Williamson, when he pulls the funding for what the architect believes could be his greatest achievement, Williamson City.  Of course, Lt. Columbo is called in to investigate.

The trick with this one is that there's no body.  Williamson's wife (second wife), a fan of Markham's architecture and who authorized going ahead with Williamson City, believes he just left on another European trip, as he does.  Markham knew this and made it seem this way.  But Williamson's first wife doesn't believe it, because Bo always notifies her when he's going out of the country.  She's the one who harangues Columbo to look deeper into this.  Which he does, because Columbo has a hunch, and his hunches are usually correct.

Columbo keeps turning up where Markham is -- at his construction site, at the college where he teaches, at his home -- and Markham knows what the lieutenant's angling at.  He pokes and prods Columbo, almost daring him to dig up the concrete pile that was filled the day after Williamson went missing.  Columbo knows Markham wants him to dig it up, but he's not sure why.  The belief is that the body's buried under those tons of concrete.  But when it's brought up and chiseled away, there's nothing.  It seems Columbo has lost.

Except Columbo doesn't lose.  That night, after having dug up the best hiding place for Williamson's body, knowing that he could never get another permit to dig up that same area (Markham's plan all along), Columbo waits at the construction site with a cadre of police officers.  And Markham, too smug in his own intelligence, obliges Lt. Columbo and shows up with Bo Williamson's body.  And the officers take him away, after the lieutenant and the murderer exchange pleasantries.

Another stellar twist, and another wonderful performance by Peter Falk, who also directed this episode.  Once again, I watched it with my 11-year-old son, and he seemed to enjoy it as much as the first one we watched.  He's already caught onto how Columbo works, and I think he enjoys the game of feint-and-parry Columbo and the murderer of the week go through.  I know I do.


SPOILER WARNING AHEAD




Better Call Saul, season 3:
With his Breaking Bad universe of characters, Vince Gilligan found a rich field of storytelling possibilities that one might not realize, when first hearing the summary of his award-winning TV series.  When I called The Americans final season a masterclass in TV writing, I wasn't being overly hyperbolic.

But if that's the masterclass, then what the hell is Better Call Saul?  Because this is the tip top of the television heap, currently, and Gilligan and his writing staff don't seem to be approaching an end point anytime soon.

There are many brilliant aspects to this show -- as with its predecessor, Breaking Bad, the characterizations and their interactions with one another are the core of what makes this series so good.  But if there's a secret ingredient, it would have to be the ability of the writers to have a character do something that feels like a "checkmate" move, only to have a counter move that blocks the first character's move and throws the status quo to the wind.



SPOILER WARNING!!!!!!!!!
(for example:  in the penultimate episode, Charles McGill [Michael McKean] sues his law firm for a buyout amount that would bankrupt it, after Howard suggested Charles should consider retiring, and it feels like game over.  But, next episode, Howard calls Charles's bluff, offers him a first payment on the buyout from his own personal savings and then leads Charles out to a gathering of all staff, where Howard announces Charles's retirement, forcing Charles's hand.  It's brilliant.)

And once we reach the end of the season, there's some real question as to what the status quo will be, come the beginning of the next season, despite the fact that we have seen many of these characters in the future of Breaking Bad.  It's a superb, tightrope-walking act, and something to which I aspire, with my own writing.
Don't just settle for the first big twist, let your characters fight back, amp up the drama, and keep the readers guessing.


WRITTEN MATERIAL --



Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys:
Last year I read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  At some point, I discovered this book, Wide Sargasso Sea, which was a response to Bronte's Jane, and I knew I had to read it soon.

Written as a feminist, anti-colonial response to Bronte's novel, the book is separated into three sections:  a moment in the early childhood of Antoinette Cosway, Mr. Rochester's first wife, that includes a traumatic episode that colored her life from that point on; the time in Antoinette's life when Rochester (told from his point of view) came to know and marry her and the troubling relationship that quickly ensues between them; and a short coda, told again from Antoinette's point of view, during her time in the attic of Rochester's mansion.

Maybe a quarter of the length of Bronte's Jane Eyre, the novel that inspired it, Sargasso Sea isn't as immersive or all-encompassing as Eyre, offering snapshots, really, from important moments in time in the life of Antoinette Cosway.  But even with that, the novel is moving and rich, utilizing the knowledge of Eyre to inform its own narrative, while fleshing out a relatively minor character from that earlier story to make her far more realized, as well as sympathetic.

The novel moved along briskly, and Rhys's confidence in her subject matter and her writing showed through in her ability to paint a full picture of Antoinette Cosway with an economy of words and settings.

I worry, at times, that my own writing can become bogged down in the minute actions and reactions of characters, that maybe I become too enamored of their conversations and possibly do not give enough over to setting the stage.  Rhys's ability to set the table without lingering too long is something to strive for, and something to give me hope that maybe I'm not going as far off course as I might believe.


INSPIRATION(s) --

Once more, I look to Warren Ellis and his Orbital Operations newsletter, for a bit of inspiration, from the sign-off of his latest:

A lot of you are people who make things.  A lot of you are just trying to get through the day while still remaining yourselves.  Feels like wading through mud sometimes, right?  Exhausting, dispiriting.  All starts with one step.  And then one more step.  At your own pace.  One step a week is victory.  One step is victory.  Lean into the wind.  The handrails are there for a reason, and, trust me, they're there, even if some fucker turned off the lights.  Hold on tight.  See you next week.  

I do love how Ellis always signs off with a positive message for all those reading, urging them to keep pushing ahead, even as the world threatens to crush us all.


MUSIC TO WRITE BY --



I.  Love.  Clint.  Mansell.  

Certainly, the fact he's worked so closely with my favorite contemporary film director, Darren Aronofsky, has a lot to do with my affection for Mansell's music.  Without that symbiotic relationship (if I may call it that), I probably would not have been introduced to Mansell's genius, or maybe not introduced to it as early.

Mansell's scores for The Fountain and Moon, Requiem for a Dream and Pi, are all amazing, and the additional music I've discovered on spotify, are all brilliant collections to listen to while writing.  The range of emotions evoked by Mansell are broad, and even when there's a melancholy tone it is still beautiful to the ear.

If you're looking for some great music, check out Clint Mansell's film scores, you will not be disappointed.


 ON WRITING --



A great writing blog, focusing on crime fiction with a rotating collection of authors, is Do Some Damage.  This past Monday, Dharma Kelleher, had a great post on "Essential Principles of Storytelling."  I would heartily recommend you hit the link and read the whole thing, but if you're short for time and want the Cliffs Notes version, here you go:

  1. Don't bore the reader --- one particularly great example she shares is to "describe characters in ways that reveal who they are, not just what they look like."  It's a two birds-one stone thing, and it's brilliant. 
  2. Don't insult the reader or their intelligence --- Basically, do your research so that you don't misrepresent something that could have easily been fixed before publication. 
  3. Don't confuse your readers --- This is a tough one, to offer enough information that readers are engaged but not too much that they feel overwhelmed.  Use beta-readers to help find out if you reached that balance.
These are lessons I certainly plan on applying to my writing, especially the revisions for the latest novel, which I have started.  This is great stuff.

Revision of the novel continues apace, and my streak of writing days has reached 40 and seems unlikely to abate any time soon.  I am loving, so far, what I've got, as far as a skeleton for this novel goes, while also taking comfort in my ability to shift and cut and adjust what is in this first draft to create a clearer and cleaner narrative.  My latest time at the keyboard, I managed to cut 1500 words to a bit over 1000.  This is good.  And I look forward to what comes next, because having let this sit for a while (over a year, at least), a lot of what I'm reading feels brand new, and that's pretty exciting.

-chris

Friday, March 15, 2019

FINAL QUOTE: Anna Akhmatova, "My Half Century"



Anna Akhmatova was the preeminent Russian poet of the first half of the 20th Century.  She was censored and her works banned from publication, through a party resolution by the Russian government, twice, from 1925-1939 and 1946-1956.  Short-listed for the Novel Prize, she may be the best poet you've never heard of.  
I recently read a selection of her prose, from letters and diaries primarily, in "My Half Century" and have shared a selection of quotes from that book.  



Here is one final quote.  A beautiful observation, on the death of a young poet, Nadezhda Lvova.  

It is painful when a poet dies, but when a young poet dies it is even more painful.  You read the few lines that he has left behind with agonizing concentration, greedily scouring the still immature voice and the youthfully spare imagery for the secret of death, which is hidden from us, the living.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

FYC: Black Science vol. 1, by Rick Remender & Matteo Scalera




I used to write an online column, For Your Consideration, in which I recommended a comic series or standalone story and included a short Q&A with the creator(s).  It ran for a bit over a year and was a blast.  I thought, since I'm back to writing regularly here, that I might also include recommendations of comics I'm reading, whether current or not.  I don't have the cachet to pull in creators for quick interviews, but I can still offer some suggestions of what books might be worth your time. And here's one I've been meaning to read but hadn't gotten around to, until recently:  BLACK SCIENCE.



I read the first volume of this science fiction comic series, from Image Comics, and it was pretty great.  An obsessed scientist, Grant McKay, has discovered how to successfully traverse parallel dimensions in the Eververse, but the machinery is immediately damaged, continuing to regularly jump those within the proper vicinity to other dimensions but without the ability to navigate where it takes them.  Through the course of these first six issues, the group, which includes a bodyguard, assistants, the antagonistic head of the project, and McKay's two children--one a pre-teen and one in high school--jump from one harrowing experience to another, with a few of their numbers meeting a fatal end.



I was impressed with how quickly the story moved along, and how ruthless Remender was about his characters.  He is more than willing to kill a character to throw up more dramatic roadblocks to the protagonist's desire to get home.  It makes for good drama and engages a reader, spurring me to ask, how the hell is he going to get them out of this fix?



The art from Scalera is a wonderful complement to the story Remender is telling.  Similar in style to Sean Murphy, Scalera's ever so slightly loose linework overlaying a photorealistic approach provides an appealing base that is infused with a franticness, mirroring the narrative.  Also on display are Scalera's design chops:  asked to create strange alien creatures for some of the parallel dimensions, while "dressing" others in distinctly "futuristic" costuming, when the denizens of a dimension closely resemble the humanity we are all familiar with.  And all of these creatures and settings are brought to wonderful, chromatic life by colorist, Dean White.  His color palette for this series is sharply distinct and makes the images pop, when needed, or become somber and disturbing when the story calls for it.



Overall, this is an exciting series, and I can't wait to read more.  Check it out!

-chris

Monday, March 11, 2019

QUOTES part four: Anna Akhmatova "My Half Century"

Anna Akhmatova was the preeminent Russian poet of the first half of the 20th Century.  She was censored and her works banned from publication, through a party resolution by the Russian government, twice, from 1925-1939 and 1946-1956.  Short-listed for the Novel Prize, she may be the best poet you've never heard of.  
I recently read a selection of her prose, from letters and diaries primarily, in "My Half Century" and wanted to share occasional quotes, here, from that book.  



I love these two longer quotes discussing memory and nostalgia and how we can be constrained or hampered by looking back through glasses that are too rose-colored.  Of course, Akhmatova puts it in a far more beautiful, as well as severe, manner.  


. . .the reader of this book should get used to the idea that nothing was the way he thinks it was, or when, or where.  It's awful to say, but people see only what they want to see, and hear only what they want to hear.  They speak to themselves "in general" and almost always answer themselves, without listening to the person with whom they are speaking.  This characteristic of human nature explains ninety percent of the monstrous rumors, false reputations, and sacredly-guarded gossip. . .I ask those who disagree with me only to remember what they have heard about themselves. 

My generation is not threatened with a melancholy return, because there is nowhere for us to return to....Sometimes (when it's so deserted and fragrant in the parks) it seems to me that you could get in the car and drive to the days of the opening of Pavlovsk Station, to those places where a shadow inconsolably searches for me, but then I begin to realize that this is not possible, that one shouldn't bury oneself (never mind in a gasoline tin can) in memory's mansions, that I would not see anything and that I would only blot out what I see so clearly now. 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

WHAT IT IS week ending 3.9.2019

Back for more ---  week 5 of my return to writing regularly, here at Warrior27.  This is the week that was . . . March 3 - March 9 of the year 2019.
For those new here, this is a look at what I read, watched, listened to, ingested, and osmosized over the past week, in the form of entertainment, with a look at how I might hope to apply lessons or tricks gleaned from these resources into my own writing.  And if that convoluted sentence didn't put you off, let's sally forth to the heart of the matter.



VISUAL MEDIA --

SPOILER ALERT...........

The Americans, final season:
These last 10 episodes have been a masterclass in writing.  The writers create drama from the relationships and the personalities of the characters, using their temperaments and loyalties to guide the choices made by the principal players, which affords the storytelling to evolve in, what feels to the audience, a natural manner.  It is exceptional and riveting.

But, they also don't lose sight of the characterizations of the protagonists within the framework of the plot.  As an example, in episode 8, "The Summit," Philip reveals to Elizabeth that he has been spying on her for the past couple months.  There is a cadre of military generals, back in Russia, who want to bring Gorbachev down and make sure the nuclear summit with the American government is a failure.  Philip knows that Elizabeth has been working, unknowingly, for this cadre, at the bidding of the Center  He wants her to look at this situation with an open mind, not just take the word of their handler and do the job like some automaton.  Elizabeth . . . is furious. 

By the end of the episode, she has come to realize that maybe Philip is right.  She is having second thoughts about what is being asked of her, in the specific instance of a Russian operative they want assassinated, and discovers that her reports were to be doctored so that she would have full deniability.  Elizabeth doesn't believe this operative is someone who has betrayed Russia, and the idea of her reports being changed without her consent doesn't sit well with her.  She goes home and asks Philip to get a message to the operative who came here to have him spy on her.  She now believes Philip was correct in his assessment of the situation, but the fact he didn't tell her he was relaying information about her work still fills her with rage; she is in no way ready to forgive him.

This is great writing!  So often, when something like this happens -- two characters have divergent opinions on something meaningful and one of them is proven right -- the other just falls in line and accepts it without much consideration.  But here, Elizabeth acts like a real person.  She has accepted what Philip told her is correct, but she is still pissed off he betrayed her.  And that is so much more interesting.



WRITTEN MATERIAL --

My Half Century:
I finished Anna Akhmatova's "My Half Century," which is a selection of prose from the Russian poet, much of it in the form of letters or diary entries, but there is also a section dedicated to some of Akhmatova's thoughts and analysis of Pushkin, particularly his final story, "The Tale of the Golden Cockerel."  Admittedly, I've never read Pushkin before, but after reading this book, and being introduced to the fact that, alongside her poetry, Akhmatova was regarded as an authority on Pushkin, with major works devoted to the analysis of his poetry, I am more than ready to seek out his work.

Despite little more than a recognition of names and a personal lack of knowledge surrounding Russian history, both political and creative, I found this book to be fascinating.  The early sections utilizing Akhmatova's diary entries included many entries that evoked strong images and insightful opinions, thanks to her facility with the written language.  There were a number of quotes I pulled out to share here on the site, and there are a few more I plan on sharing in the coming days.

QUOTES part one
QUOTES part two
QUOTES part three

I cannot recommend this highly enough, if you are someone who loves language and, in particular, loves poetry.  Seek out the work of Anna Akhmatova (I read a book of her poetry last year, which led to this book).  And if you're also a lover of history and, in particular, early 20th-century Russian history, then this book is for you.



Black Science vol. 1, by Rick Remender & Matteo Scalera:
I read the first volume of this science fiction comic series, from Image Comics, and it was pretty great.  An obsessed scientist, Grant McKay, has discovered how to successfully traverse parallel dimensions in the Eververse, but the machinery is immediately damaged, continuing to regularly jump those within the proper vicinity to other dimensions but without the ability to navigate where it takes them.  Through the course of these first six issues, the group, which includes a bodyguard, assistants, the antagonistic head of the project, and McKay's two children, one a pre-teen and one in high school, jump from one harrowing experience to another, with a few of their numbers meeting a fatal end.

I was impressed with how quickly the story moved along, and how ruthless Remender was about his characters.  He is more than willing to kill a character to throw up more dramatic roadblocks to the protagonists's desire to get home.  It makes for good drama and engages a reader, spurring me to ask, how the hell is he going to get them out of this fix?

The art from Scalera is a wonderful complement to the story Remender is telling.  Similar in style to Sean Murphy, Scalera's ever so slightly loose linework overlaying a photorealistic approach provides an appealing base that is infused with a franticness that mirrors the narrative.  Also on display are Scalera's design chops, asked to create strange alien creatures for some of the parallel dimensions, while "dressing" others in distinctly "futuristic" costuming, when the denizens of a dimension closely resemble the humanity we are all familiar with.  And all of these creatures and settings are brought to wonderful, chromatic life by colorist, Dean White.  His color palette for this series is sharply distinct and makes the images pop, when needed, or become somber and disturbing when the story calls for it.  Overall, this is a fun series, and I can't wait to read more.



Southern Bastards, vol. 1 by Jason Aaron & Jason Latour:
On the other end of the scale, we have Southern Bastards from the two Jasons.  A story set in a small town in Craw County, Alabama, revolving around a former high school football star, Earl Tubb, who was son of the local sheriff and has returned, after too many years, to settle things, since his father died.  The football team is now coached by Coach Boss, who seems to have a stranglehold on the town, like some Mafioso in a 70s crime film.  Tubb comes into conflict with a couple of Coach Boss's minions, after an old friend he runs into winds up dead.  Violence and dredged up memories ensue.

This is a raw, mean comic, with art from Jason Latour that fits perfectly.  With Aaron's dialogue and Latour's jagged lines, the audience is offered a window on the harsh reality of this small southern town.  This first collection only includes the initial four issues, and they breeze along at a quick pace, but it whets the appetite and sets the stage for the hard knocks, and inevitable bloodbath, that is sure to come.  I'm looking forward to reading the next collections.


INSPIRATION(s) --



Scott Morse -- comic book creator, Pixar animator, overall nice guy who is hugely talented, Morse is one of the people on my personal Mt. Rushmore of comic creators.  The man's a genius.  I just wish he had more time to focus on comics, but I suppose a day job at Pixar isn't a bad trade-off for the man.

Anyway.  One of the biggest lessons you can take away from Morse's work is his ability to craft stories about serious subjects -- suicide, depression, the loss of a child -- and still make it entertaining without it being too heavy.  A lot of it comes down to the man's cartooning style.  His work is very stylized, almost cute, which can be disarming for a reader when he throws the heavy stuff at them.  But it works, and it works extremely well.  It's this juxtaposition of cartoony, cutesy characters with adult themes and scenarios that makes his work resonate, long after you finish the book.

How to apply this to my writing:  infuse my drama with humor; infuse the funny bits with some pathos; make sure to craft complex characters who aren't merely 'good' or 'evil'; and try not to write at a single tonal level -- the joy and the verisimilitude are found in the idiosyncrasies of humankind.

For more of my thoughts on Morse, check these earlier posts out:

--Comic Artists I Love...
--Review: The Barefoot Serpent
--October Comics: Crime & Terror
--October Comics: Frankenstein
--an early interview with Morse


MUSIC --

Took another page from Warren Ellis's book (or, more accurately, from one of his recent Orbital Operations newsletters).  He listed the podcasts he currently subscribes to, which includes a number of ambient and experimental music podcasts.  These are always great for writing, so I added a couple to my own collection of podcasts, and this week I listened to AMBIENT ATOMIC ORBITALS, while writing, and it was great.  Definitely check it out, if you're in the mood for some mood music.





ON WRITING --

I wrote a piece about details in my writing, why I try to add a good number of details in the beginning of my stories and how, aside from adding verisimilitude to my narratives, they can often benefit me as I approach the climax of a story.  Check it out here.

Also kept to my daily writing and equaled my previous best streak of consecutive days of writing -- 34.  It helps that I've started revising the first draft of novel#2.  In the first few days I took the opening 2996 words and whittled it down to 2017.  As I stated on twitter & FB, there sure was a lot of chaff in them there words.  But this is a good thing.  As I seek to have my first novel published (still waiting to hear back from one agent who requested the full manuscript), it's necessary that I offer books that run to under 100,000 words, which is a general rule of thumb to help increase first-time authors' chances.  The first draft for this novel came in just shy of 140,000.  So, I have a bit of work to do.  In my experience, my second drafts always come in at roughly 75% of my initial drafts, so this shouldn't be a problem.  But it's nice to see that my tradition of piling on in the first draft continues -- much of this comes from trying to figure out what the novel is, as I'm writing, with much of what eventually becomes subtext or backstory, and unnecessary for the readers to know, being on the page in the opening draft.

So, the work continues, and, so far, it's been fun.  Hoping the next 137,000 words are just as fun.

Until next week, keep pressing forward, make time to do something you like, and let those important to you know that you love them. 

-chris

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

On Writing: God (or the Devil) is in the Details

Depending on who you ask, God or the Devil is in the details.  Doesn't matter to me, as long as I've got the details I need in my stories.



My goal is to write every day.  Some days (most days, really) it's tough, like pulling teeth . . . if I knew what pulling teeth was like.  Regardless, there are many days when I write out a sentence, then sit and stare at it, only to drop my index finger onto the delete/backspace key and wash it all away.  Then I start over, usually rewriting what I just wrote, but hopefully in a slightly different fashion.  At some point, I finally stop arguing with myself over that first sentence and move onto the second.  Go through the same thing, maybe open a new tab online and check something meaningless to distract me, then force myself back to the story at hand, to get the following sentences out, onto the page.  It can be a chore, and for the most part when it is a chore it's something in my subconscious trying to tell me that I don't have the first clue what I need or want to write today.  I rarely listen to that subconscious ghoul and just plow on through until I reach an end point that suffices (not that it's a well-written end point, it's just a point where I feel like something got accomplished, even if it was merely the writing of 500 words of worm-ridden filth).

In these cases, often, the struggle may come from the fact that I don't have the necessary details for the section I'm working on.  This could mean I don't completely understand my characters, so I struggle with how they should react or what they might say.  Or it could be something like what I just encountered, where I needed to include a short news story in my narrative that reported on an ambush of American soldiers during the Vietnam conflict.  Generally, I'm more well-versed in the Vietnam conflict than most, but I can't just pluck details and scenarios from memory.  So, writing that short bit was challenging, and I found myself working to distract myself more often than not.  Since it was a first draft, I worked through it, to have something down as a placeholder, with the broad strokes necessary for the emotional impact the story provides my protagonist, and I knew that, later, I could find the necessary details from an online search or some of the materials I have at home.  It wasn't as if I needed to have the details, at that point, to get the bit written, but in lacking those details I found myself and my ability to write it fluently and efficiently hampered.



Even when writing fiction, research is essential.  Two of my favorite stories have come from doing serious research, before starting to write.  The first was a comic story, "Big Man," which I had published in Unfashioned Creatures: A Frankenstein Anthology, by Red Stylo Media, with art from Gary Fitzgerald.  The call for submissions asked for new, original stories inspired by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  At the time, I'd never read Shelley's classic.  It was a perfect excuse to rectify that omission, and I'm so glad I finally did.  I read the novel over a weekend and began brainstorming ideas.  In the end, I was able to take the idea of the Monster, combine it with my experience living on a fishing island, twenty miles off the coast of Maine, and layer it with something my wife shared about a plot point in J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy.  From all of that, I wrote an 8-page script that I am incredibly happy with, and which, I feel, hues closely to the themes put forth by Shelley.

The second time a dose of heavy research helped me with a story came during an open call for steampunk tales set in Civil War-era New Orleans, for the anthology New Orleans by Gaslight.  I, basically, knew nothing about steampunk, other than the obvious trappings one comes across online--the advanced science utilizing the technologies of the mid-19th Century time period.  I was unaware of the overall approach to steampunk, that of being more upbeat and more inclusive than the actual era was, of lifting up all peoples through the fictions and the cosplay of this subgenre.
I also knew very little about voudou, but I wanted to include it in my story and also wanted to treat it with respect, rather than utilize hoary cliches from the times I'd seen it on television.  Warren Ellis, around that time, had shared, through his newsletter, a youtube video purporting to show a voudou ritual.  And I also managed to find a good book in the stacks here, at the University of Maine's Fogler Library, where I work--  American Voudou: Journey into a Hidden World by Rod Davis.  This was an invaluable resource, which took an open-minded view to voudou rituals and shared details about them that helped inform my story, "You Gotta Give Good."  All of this swirled together, and I came out with a 3400-word story that got a specific shout-out from a reader's review for the anthology, on Amazon.
Without doing the research, there's no way I could have had my story accepted.



Generally speaking, I add details to characters, early in the story, to just try and make them interesting.  Sometimes these details are ones that were thought out beforehand, but more often than not it's just me writing off-the-cuff.  I'm still trying to find these characters and discover who they are, at the opening stages of the writing, so many of the bits I add are just spontaneous thoughts that I got down on paper. 

As I move forward, in the story, these details become more permanent, more a part of who these people are (if they aren't jettisoned, which can happen too).  They feed into the personalities, which in turn, hopefully, feed into the narrative.  Typically, I have an idea of where I'm heading with my story, but it's rather vague with a lot of empty space between here (the opening) and there (the ending).  This affords me not only the opportunity to improvise, but it also keeps me writing.  Even if I'm unsure what exactly happens next, I can push ahead and possibly discover something new and unexpected in the writing. 

The biggest boon that comes from these details often materializes in the end of the story.  For me, at least.  Like I state above, I often have a vague idea of where I'm going.  It helps, and I prefer, to have a point to which you're aiming, when writing, otherwise it can quickly become an unfocused mess.  But, though I may know how I want it to end, I usually don't know the exact way the end will reveal itself.  Having a number of details attached to the characters, in the beginning, has helped me with these endings.  I write slowly (maybe more detailed outlines might be optimal, if I wanted to increase my writing speed), like Indiana Jones methodically working his way through the jungle, wary of enemies and predators, while being careful not to miss some sign that would lead to his next archaeological conquest.  I only think about the next scene, pondering what should happen and how to approach it, and only consider the following one once I've written the scene in front of me.  This can sometimes be frustrating, but something the longer time affords me is the chance to really get to know my characters, and for the details slapped on them, at the outset, to become ingrained within them.  And, quite often, I find the key to writing that final bit in some detail from the opening. 

It happened in my latest short story -- the aged father, now in a nursing home, is a Vietnam veteran.  the timing for this seemed right, and that was my basic thought.  But, in the end, a story about his time in Vietnam, which his middle-aged son found and read in a scrapbook, spurred the son toward the climax I had envisioned from the start.  Without that key news story, which wouldn't have been possible without the detail of the father serving in Vietnam, I would not have found the emotional hook I needed to get the son to move on, with his life.  It was a happy coincidence, but one that came about because I wanted to make the introduction of a character interesting and added details to achieve that. 

-chris

Sunday, March 3, 2019

WHAT IT IS, week ending 3.2.2019

Week four of recommitting to this weekly check-in on what I've been reading, what I've been watching, what I've been writing, and how it all interweaves into a seamless whole of creativity and inspiration.  (see, when you're the one in charge of the writing, you can make anything sound good, even if the truth is a bit more . . . messy).  That's enough for a preamble, let get to it:



VISUAL MEDIA:


Columbo: Murder by the Book --
I introduced my 11-year-old son to Columbo this past week, and it was glorious.  (possibly more glorious for me than for him).  This is the classic episode directed by Stephen Spielberg and written by Steven Bochco.  Ken Franklin (played by Jack Cassidy, who starred in several Columbo episodes) is one-half of a writing team, famous for the series of mysteries starring Mrs. Melville.  His partner, Jim Ferris, has decided to end their partnership.  So, Franklin kills him, while carefully laying the groundwork for it to look like a mob hit.  It's an intricate plan involving luring his soon to be former partner away from the office, to come to his cabin a couple hours south, while convincing Ferris to call and tell his wife that he's working late, without letting on he's with Franklin.  It's a masterful plan.
But Columbo knows, right from the jump, that Franklin is the one who did it, and tiny inconsistencies pop up as he hangs around and drops in, uninvited, on Franklin, using his aloof manner to play the part of a doofus, while putting together the puzzle laid out for him.  In the end, Columbo enlists Ferris's wife, imploring her to talk extemporaneously about her husband's writing and his partnership with Franklin, hoping that some minor detail will clue him in to how he can catch the killer.
And it works, because it always does, because he's Columbo.
This is a different Columbo, though, not quite the character he became, that we know and love so much.  Falk is still shifting from the initial pilot's characterization, which had him berating and admonishing the murderer.  It's closer to the unassuming, quiet detective he becomes, but there's still a bit of assertiveness and forthrightness, particularly in the scene with Ferris's widow, toward the end, that feels like a bit of a hangover from those first, slightly faulty steps.  It's not a bad thing, and not even anything that would be unwelcome in the character; it's just a characteristic to which fans of Columbo might be unaccustomed.
I love this series, and this episode, in particular, is certainly a high point for the series.  The smartness of the plot, the timing from Columbo -- with his "gotchas" after setting up the murderer to incriminate himself by answering a previous, seemingly innocuous, question -- is priceless.  There's a ton I can take away from this episode and this show, to improve my writing.
Oh, and though I'm certain my son would tell you, now, that watching this episode was "boring," he was totally into every turn of the screw, while we watched.  So, there's that, too.



Babylon 5: Chrysalis (season 1, episode 22) --
I finished up season one of Babylon 5.  It, too, was great.  I'd forgotten about the subplot around Garibaldi being shot while pursuing a tip that someone was out to kill the Earth Alliance President, which leads to the successful assassination of President Santiago.
This episode is where everything changes.  Delenn performs a ritual that puts her into a chrysalis and will change her physical appearance, going forward, which will come with a renewed outlook on her race's role in the universe and how they relate to humans, specifically, and other races, in general.  Garibaldi is shot by one of his own, which will make him even more paranoid.  Londo unwittingly enlists the Shadows to destroy a Narn military base in a disputed area between the Narns and Centauri.  G'Kar will leave the station to look into this.  And with the Earth Alliance President dead, his VP, Morgan Clark, steps in and immediately announces a retrenchment and refocus on Earth and its priorities (not unlike the current U.S. regime under Trump, as well as other right-wing, nationalist political figures ascending across the globe).  As Kosh states, toward the end of the episode, "And so it begins."  Indeed it does.
One thing I've always kept at the back of my mind, in reference to this episode and to my own writing, is a statement from the commentary track by J. Michael Straczynski.  The bits surrounding Commander Sinclair in this episode are, for the most part, quiet, at least in the opening half of the show.  He and his on-again, off-again lover, Catherine Sakai, are getting a chance to spend time together, and Sinclair decides to pop the question.  She says yes.  This is followed by a nice dinner (for a quick moment, anyway) with Ivanova and Garibaldi, announcing their plans and asking these two to be their Maid of Honor and Best Man, respectively. 
As JMS points out, this was intentional.  The best way, he said, to lay the foundation for a big shake-up, as happens in the latter half of this episode, is to start with some quiet moments, to allow for a stark contrast between the quiet and the loud, allowing the impact of the dramatic events to be heightened by this contrast.  It's something I try to have in my "bag of tricks," but after watching this episode again, I realize it's something I need to be more aware of, when I'm writing dramatic scenes like this.



WRITTEN MATERIAL:



Anna Akhmatova: My Half Century --My reading of Anna Akhmatova's prose continues.  I've moved into a section where she writes about Pushkin, for which she became quite well known.  It has me intrigued to read his work now.
Akhmatova's prose continues to be engaging, whether writing matter-of-factly or poetically, and her incisive intellect is very appealing.  I have shared a few more quotes from my reading, on the site.  Links below:

Quotes part Two

Quotes part Three

I was particularly taken with the second link above, where Akhmatova talks of the village where she spent some of her early life, Slepnyovo.  She likened it to an arch in architecture, where it seems small at first, but it gets bigger and bigger until you find complete freedom, once you walk through.  It's a wonderful metaphor for life, living in a small village or a small town, as I did, but it also works with the mechanics of the words:  arch being the first, smaller section of architecture, a much larger word and idea.


INSPIRATION(s):

Moebius, always inspirational.




MUSIC:

Went back to a musician Warren Ellis introduced me to, through one of his e-newsletters, Kemper Norton.  Part ambient, part electronica, the music can be soothing one second and then become completely overwhelming, with harmonies vying for dominance and failing, while the collective pieces merge into a whole that is almost otherworldly.  His work is wholly distinct and great for writing.  Here's a sample:





WRITING:

I've mentioned before that I track my writing.  Used to be, I logged the number of words written per day, shooting for 1000 words a day.  Now, I log whether I have written or not, and right now I'm in the middle of what I am certain is my second longest streak of unbroken days of writing - 28.  Not bad.  6 more and I match my personal best of 34. 

This week I completed final revisions on a short story "Tommy & Marc," which acts as a prelude to the novel I need to do a heavy rewrite on, which is next in the queue.  The short story was a way for me to get a better feel for the main characters of my novel.  At the time, I'd already written up roughly 25,000 words of background material on them, as well as the setting and plot and such, but I still didn't really know how they might talk or act -- specifically, I needed to better understand what made the two of them different, and writing a story set during their first year of high school seemed a good way to do that. 

It was something I'd not done before, but which I had read about, from other writers, as a good way to delve into characters before embarking on a longer story with them.  It helped.  Though, obviously, writing 4000 words didn't give me a full picture of these characters, but it did help get things started and propelled me into the novel, which, at its first draft length, runs to about 120,000 words, and that experience, in turn, hopefully helped inform the rewrites for this story. 

I know these short stories aren't always written, by others, with the idea of publication in mind.  They're more an exercise, something to fill out the backstory while remaining in the crevices between paragraphs.  But I like what I wrote, and it stands well on its own.  So, now, I need to start looking for places where it might be a good fit.  But not until I fix the ending, which I realized, after getting it written, didn't work.  Or, didn't work as well as I would have liked.  I tried to be overly flowery and profound, when I all I need to be is direct with the writing, especially since I already know exactly how the story ends up.  This is something I struggle with -- though I find myself better able to recognize it, now -- attempting to overreach with my prose when all that's needed is a blunt directness.  So, I'll polish that up, start looking for journals to submit it to, and begin the task of whittling down 120,000 words to around 90K.  Oh, and I need to rework my query letter again for the first novel. 
That seems like enough to get me through another week of writing, without a break.  If so, I'll be back here next week, touting my new personal best streak of consecutive days of writing. 

-chris

Friday, March 1, 2019

QUOTES part three: Anna Akhmatova, "My Half Century"

Anna Akhmatova was the preeminent Russian poet of the first half of the 20th Century.  She was censored and her works banned from publication, through a party resolution by the Russian government, twice, from 1925-1939 and 1946-1956.  Short-listed for the Novel Prize, she may be the best poet you've never heard of.  
I'm currently reading a selection of her prose, from letters and diaries primarily, in "My Half Century" and wanted to share occasional quotes, here, from that book.  



For me Slepnyovo is like an arch in architecture....  It's small at first, but then gets bigger and bigger.  And finally--complete freedom (if you exit).

Slepnyovo is the village in Russia where Akhmatova lived with her first husband, Nikolai Gumilyov, and their son, Lev.  Having grown up in a small town in Maine, I understand completely what Akhmatova is saying with this quote, and empathize fully with her.  Akhmatova knew, or felt, there was something bigger out there, if she just went out and got it.   And, in exiting Slepnyovo, she discovered complete freedom, though that freedom did come at a price.


It's also fascinating to see how Akhmatova compares Slepnyovo like an arch (small at first) in architecture, especially when one realizes that "arch" is the first, and smaller, part of the word architecture.


For other quotes I've shared from Akhmatova's "My Half Century" see below:

Quotes

More Quotes


-chris