Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Blue Sugar and Silver Shoes (Michelle)

In The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron recommends the "discipline" of taking a weekly "artist's date," to allow yourself to play, recharge, collect images for future work. "Restock the pond" is a phrase she uses. It never quite works for me, in that if I try to plan an artist date, I get stressed out and feel burdened, which kind of defeats the whole purpose of the enterprise. I do take a lot of impromptu artist dates though: sudden decisions to poke through an antique store, spur-of-the moment doodle sessions, unexpected trips to the children's section of a used bookstore...

I had a lovely one yesterday when I was making cookies with two toddlers of my acquaintance, and one of them spilled an entire bottle of blue sugar crystals (you know, decorating sugars) all over the floor. Now, I got in huge trouble as a ten-year-old (and rightly so) for sprinkling glitter all over the basement floor one afternoon and dancing around in it. And I have always nourished a secret (or not-so-secret) wish to be Ginger Rogers, gliding around in a fantastical world of art-deco satin and sparkles. (In college, I wrote a paper for a philosophy course trying to justify this. No joke.)

So, instead of being upset that there were blue sugar crystals all over the kitchen floor, glittering in the afternoon sun, I found myself incredibly pleased. I was wearing silver flats, too, so as I shuffled around, broom in hand, gathering up the sugar, I felt like I'd been given a huge present. It was spring cleaning day in Candyland; an explosion in Mr. Wonka's factory; perhaps it was the most serious problem Ginger Rogers would face after her sparkly, tap-dancey marriage to one of Fred Astaire's many smooth-faced characters.

I would highly recommend that, if you think you can be free enough of your social training that teaches you not to make deliberate messes, you immediately buy a bottle of decorating sugar (or glitter, I suppose) and dump it all over the floor to shuffle around in.

This is artist date suggestion #1. I have no doubt that more will follow!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Language of Birds (Michelle)

A friend sent me this fun little squib about a hawk at Penn State. This qualifies as the "something interesting," if not explicitly related to writing, that I promised to post occasionally.

An interest in birds has crept up on me in the past few months, and I find them very helpful for my writing. It's interesting, for example, thinking about a highly landscaped, highly humanized college campus being the hunting-ground for a bird of prey. I like it when I see hawks perched along the highway, too, or on top of skyscrapers in big cities. The contrast between the life "red in tooth and claw" that they lead and the plastic civilization of the 21st century always interests me.

In traditional literature, too, birds are often symbols of chaos - check out the stormcrows in Anglo-Saxon poems, for example, who always show up before the battle has started. Artists continue to make use of this, too - Hitchcock among them in Psycho and, you guessed it, The Birds.

They are incredibly rich symbols, in my opinion, in part because they are so thoroughly other. Look in a bird's eyes sometime - there is nothing human there, nothing to empathize with. And for me, that sparks the imagination.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Weekly Quotes Archive

Expect updates on this one as the Quote of the Week changes!

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.
--- Scott Adams

There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it's like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.
--- Ernest Hemingway

“Art," the third-grader said with a knowing sigh, "takes time."
--- Washington Post article on “The Big Draw," a Maryland event designed to encourage support for arts education

"To a large degree my life is my art, and when it gets dull, so does my work. As an artist, I may poke into what other people think of as dead ends: a punk band that I mysteriously fall for, a piece of gospel music that hooks my inner ear, a piece of red silk I just like and add to a nice outfit, thereby 'ruining it.'As an artist, I may frizz my hair or wear weird clothes. I may spend too much money on perfume in a pretty blue bottle even though the perfume stinks because the bottle lets me write about Paris in the thirties.As an artist, I write whether I think it's any good or not. I shoot movies other people may hate. I sketch bad sketches to say, 'I was in this room. I was happy. It was May and I was meeting somebody I wanted to meet.'"
--- Julia Cameron
The Artist's Way

"Read like a butterfly; write like a bee."
--- Philip Pullman

"Words are powerful. They can make pictures in your head."
--- Patricia Polacco

"The world will be saved by beauty."
--- Fyodor Dostoevsky

"The hardest thing for a writer of fiction to do is to make the truth sound convincing."
--- Dorothy L. Sayers
Have His Carcase

"Laughter's good for you. And that's the best of arguments, since few advantages come from the grief and sorrow that harrass you. Writing should laugh, not weep, since laughter is of man the very marrow. LIVE IN JOY."
--- Rabelais

“One cannot get the news from poems, but men die daily for lack of what is found there.”
--- William Carlos Williams

"The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - that you'd thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you've never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it's as if a hand has come out, and taken yours."
--- Alan Bennett
The History Boys

"One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries."
--- A. A. Milne

"Everything is made of stories."
--- Alan Moore
Swamp Thing
"Abandoned Houses"

“We may well run out of oil. We are in no danger whatever of running out of narrative.”
--- Sam Leith

“If the right twist would not come of itself, it was useless to manufacture it. She had her image—the world sleeping like a great top on its everlasting spindle—and anything added to that would be mere verse-making. Something might come of it some day. In the meanwhile she had got her mood on to paper—and this is the release that all writers, even the feeblest, seek for as men seek for love; and having found it, they doze off happily into dreams and trouble their hearts no further.”
--- Dorothy L. Sayers
Gaudy Night

“Poems are imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”
--- Marianne Moore.

“[Like Scheherazade] I wanted to change those looks of hate and mistrust, to transform the sultan’s face into the beautiful face of the reclining prince on the cover of my childhood storybook. Where did I get the idea that stories could do that? That I could do that?”
--- Julia Alvarez
“An Autobiography of Scheherazade”
Mirror, Mirror On the Wall

"The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne."
--- Chaucer

"I write because I have secrets that no one else knows."
--- Tony Jordan

“Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”
---Terry Pratchett
Hogfather (Death makes this observation, in capital letters.)

"Q. What do you most enjoy about writing books?
A. Just about everything. Of course it's wonderful to be able to work with the imagination, to explore language and narrative, to turn a few notions and images into a full-length story, but it's also lovely just to be able to play with paper, pens, notebooks, paper clips, computers, et cetera, et cetera. And it's wonderful to be able to make my living now from doing something that's so engrossing.
--- "A Conversation with David Almond"
(in the back of the Laurel-Leaf paperback edition of Skellig)

"One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, not by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mold of the mind; out of all that has been thought or seen or read, that has long been forgotten, descending into the deeps."
--- J.R.R. Tolkien
quoted in Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages

"There ought to be in everything you write some sign that you come from almost anywhere."
--- Robert Frost

"A writer is, every waking hour, constantly pondering scenes or structural problems . . . That's the terrible part, because you can't get away from it."
--- George Lucas
The Making of Star Wars, p. 15

"Don't try to be a writer. Try to be writing."
--- William Faulkner

"You see, the work of a storyteller doesn't get any easier the more experienced you get, because once we've learned how to do something, we can't get excited about doing exactly the same thing again --- or at least most of us can't. We keep wanting to reach for the story that is too hard for us to tell --- and then make ourselves learn how to tell it. If we succeed, then maybe we can write better and better books, or at least more challenging ones, or at the very least we won't bore ourselves."
--- Orson Scott Card
Introduction to Speaker for the Dead (TOR edition)

“What you describe happens to everyone: magic does slide through you, and disappear, and come back later looking like something else. And I’m sorry to tell you this, but where your magic lives will always be a great dark space with scraps you fumble for. You must learn to sniff them out in the dark.”
--- Robin McKinley
Spindle's End

"In good writing, words become one with things."
--- Ralph Waldo Emerson

"And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."
--- Sylvia Plath

"A man will turn over half a library to make one book."--- Samuel Johnson

"Hail to the speaker and him who listens! May whoever learns these words prosper because fo them! Hail to those who listen!"
--- Havamal (Old Norse poem)
translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland

"Character is fate."
--- Heraclitus

"I like the fact that in ancient Chinese art the great painters always included a deliberate flaw in their work: human creation is never perfect."
--- Madeleine L'Engle

"I have made my world, and it is a far better world than any I ever saw outside."
--- Louise Nevelson
(with thanks to Kelsey for bringing it to our attention!)

"I've been making up my world / I've been painting it with gold."
--- Yael Naim, "Too Long"

"Q. How do you balance writing with your busy career as a forensic anthropologist?

A. First I do one. Then I do the other."
--- Bones

"We are waiters, too. We're like yoga students, trying to perfect the art of 'alert passivity'. As Kipling said, our task is to 'drift, wait and obey.'"

--Rose Tremain, on the task of a writer (Daily Telegraph)

"This person, whoever is the centre of the world in your book, they are very close to you psychologically. There is an invisible exchange all the time, a kind of transfer of energy. A bit of them flowing into you, a bit of you flowing into them."

-- Hilary Mantel on writing about Thomas Cromwell, interviewed by Anna Murphy, the Daily Telegraph

"Reading is not simply an intellectual pursuit but an emotional and spiritual one. It lights the candle in the hurricane lamp of self; that's why it survives."

--Anna Quindlen, "Reading Has a Strong Future", Newsweek

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry,
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll:
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul.

-- Emily Dickinson, Poems, Third Series

"You are a poem – and that is to be the best part of a poet – what makes up a poet’s consciousness in his best moods,” said Will, showing such originality as we all share with the morning and the spring-time and other endless renewals.

-- Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch (George Eliot)

"... Add all of the dry ingredients in a large bowl and mix very well. Pour all of the buttermilk into the bowl at once and stir, using a wooden spoon, just until a soft dough is formed. Do not try to make it smooth at this point. Pour the contents of the bowl out into a plastic counter and knead for a minute or so until everything comes together."

-- from Jeff Smith's recipe for Irish Soda Bread.

"Why don't you write? That always used to make you happy," said her mother once, when the desponding fit overshadowed Jo.

"I've no heart to write, and if I had, nobody cares for my things."

"We do. Write something for us, and never mind the rest of the world. Try it, dear, I'm sure it would do you good, and please us very much."

"Don't believe I can." But Jo got out her desk and began to overhaul her half-finished manuscripts.

-Little Women, Chapter 42

"Making new art doesn't happen in isolation; it's more of a shared activity."
-- Richard Dorment on the work of Pre-Raphaelite artists, the Daily Telegraph.

"Poets are those who know how to give shape to my dreams."
-- Comtesse Diane

"Words are a form of action, capable of influencing change."
-- Ingrid Bengis

"...the true novel, if you understand what I mean by that term, must also make use of facts, but above all it must be concerned with the truth that lies behind them - the wild mountains that are the source of the "tame" cobblestones of the pavement or the artistically hewn stones in a work of sculpture..."
--Sigrid Unset

"We are the instrument more than the author of our work."-- Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way, p. 118.

"A play is fiction - and fiction is fact instilled into truth."-- Edward Albee

"I have a mess in my head sometimes, and there's something very satisfying about putting it into words. Certainly, it's not something that you're in charge of, necessarily, but writing about it... can be a very powerful experience. And putting it well, God, there's no pleasure better than that."
-- Carrie Fisher

"Words are intended, if anything is, to be played with."
-- Christopher Howse, of the Daily Telegraph

A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand.
-- Virginia Woolf

"All of us who have ever written, composed music [or] painted know that when we performed these acts, we are not in touch with the world.  We are completely withdrawn from it, and in our own world.  We are re-creating an inner-world."
--Anita Desai

"There is no greater agony than carrying an untold story inside you." -- Maya Angelou

"Writing's a lot like cooking.  Sometimes the cake won't rise, not matter what you do, and every now and again the cake tastes better than you ever could have dreamed it would."
--Neil Gaiman, Fragile Things.

"We are a species that needs to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason why they write so little."
-- Anne Lamott

"Writers should be read, but neither seen nor heard." 
--Daphne du Maurier.

"Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule."
-- Stephen King

"Simplify, simplify, simplify."
--Henry David Thoreau

"First, find out what your hero wants. Then just follow him."

--Ray Bradbury

"All the stories I would like to write persecute me.  When I am in my chamber, it seems as if they are around me like little devils, and while one tugs at my ear, another tweaks my nose, and each says to me, 'Sir, write me, I am beautiful.'"

--Umberto Eco

"The road to hell is paved with adverbs."

--Stephen King

"It absolutely never occurred to me that it wouldn't happen eventually. I never for a moment doubted it. You know, I thought, 'Ok, I'm not good enough yet, I'm not there yet, but I'll get there.'"

--Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont's Life In Pictures tells NPR why she continued to write even after her previous four novels were rejected. 

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts."

--Winston Churchill

"I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I've never met.  I want to go on living even after my death!  And that is why I am so grateful to God for having given me this gift."

-- Anne Frank, 5 April 1944

"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog's blanket and a tea cozy... I found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring - I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen house."

-- Dodie Smith, I Capture The Castle, p. 1 - Cassandra begins her journal.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."

--Albert Einstein

"A writer who waits for ideal conditions in which to work will die without putting a word on paper."

--E. B. White

"If you've ever looked at your writing and seen nothing but problems, I'm here to tell you it's a good thing: you're on the right track. To be a writer is to be a dissatisfied reader of your own prose."

--Daniel Griffin, Canadian author

"Writing is an honest-to-god muscle. If you don't flex it enough, the heavy-lifting becomes much harder."

--Allison Winn Scotch, author of The Song Remains the Same

Writing is, in the end, that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.
--Pico Iyer

Dreams are answers to questions we haven't figured out how to ask.
--Agent Mulder, The X-Files, Season 1, "Aubrey"

"We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in introspection."
--Anais Nin

"If the weak hand that has recorded this tale has by its scenes beguiled the mourner of one hour of sorrow, or by its moral taught him to sustain it - the effort, however humble, has not been in vain, nor is the writer unrewarded."

--Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1764

"Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

"You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you're writing."

-- Gene Wolfe

 "Language is the mother, not the handmaiden, of thoughts; words will tell you things you never thought or felt before."

-- W.H. Auden

"Make some sacrifice for your art and you will be repaid but ask of art to sacrifice itself for you and a bitter disappointment may come to you."

--Oscar Wilde

 "Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer."

-- Barbara Kingsolver

 "In any case, the bottom line is that if you want to write, you get to, but you probably won't be able to get very far if you don't start trying to get over your perfectionism."

--Anne Lamott

 "I learned to write by writing. I tended to anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work."

-- Neil Gaiman, his "Make Good Art" speech at Philadelphia's University of the Arts.

I'm trying to write the best books I can write. The pressure I feel is from the voice in my head that reminds me: You're not there yet. Keep working.

-- Lydia Netzer, author of Shine Shine Shine, as she embarks on publishing her second novel. From Martha Woodruff's NPR blog post. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Occupational Hazards (from Michelle)

My best teacher in high school, the one who really got me writing, used to talk about how T.S. Eliot would go to libraries and stand in the stacks, reading literary criticism of his work and giggling. I hope one day I'll get to that level of healthy detachment about people's reactions to my work.

I haven't really written much in about a week, on the blog or on my projects, because I had an experience that kind of upset me and I've been...rebuilding. I read a story of mine to some family members, and they ended up understanding way too much about me, myself, from hearing it. It's inevitable, I suppose, that people look for the writer behind the words, but I wasn't prepared for them to be so right. My listeners last week are kind people, of course, and didn't abuse the knowledge in any way, but it was scary to realize how much I can apparently reveal about myself without intending to at all.

Let me clarify that none of the characters in the story were me, none of their experiences were like mine, and I didn't write with any intention of revealing myself. It's just that you (or I, anyway) have to use my own emotional impulses, the things I find happy and the things I find sad and the things I find interesting, to write, because I have nothing else. Maybe that's what they mean by "writing what you know" - I've always wondered. As a writer, I suppose I'm a little bit like a method actor, needing to find the reality in myself before I can write about it convincingly.

But I found it really scary and upsetting, to discover that I can be so transparent in my writing, and I've had to process the revelation. But I've decided it's a bit of an occupational hazard of being any kind of an artist - you put your deepest self at the service of others and the truth. That's why certain roles are exhausting for actors, why it hurts so much to have your work rejected.

And I am driving home this truth to myself by posting about it on the blog where anybody can read it. So there.

Friday, September 19, 2008

"Does it need saying?" (Jillian)

First, a few lyrics from Karen Matheson - Album: Time to Fall, Song: "All the Flowers of the Bough" (She's Scottish, and she's awesome!)

Hearts are meant to be broken -
Made that way.
Love must have its trial.
Beauty, hope and wonder
Could not be
Without doubt and pain and self-denial.

All the flowers of the bough
They will fall and they will fade
But they resound
In the distance of the days.
Is life just a dance
Of happenstance?
I don't believe that.

Something that has been on my mind lately is love stories. I am writing a novel that is very much a love story. It was not something I'd planned. In fact, when the idea sparked into my imagination two years ago (in a story of its own), I began with the express purpose of avoiding a love story all together. My thought was, "I am too obsessed with all of these romance ideas! I shouldn't be aiming for a corny, sappy, sugar fest! What will people think?" But years later, the love story fought back… and has become one of the strongest threads in the tapestry of this novel. But why the lingering shame? Not to mention, the reluctance to mention to people who innocent ask what this complicated project is about, "Oh, yeah, there are these two characters who eventually… well… you know… fall in love…" and changing the subject as fast as possible.

I think our society has, in general, become cynical about love and what love actually means… overindulgent in things that seem to be love but are not. Evidence seems to be everywhere in film (loathed unintelligent "chick flicks" which border on soft pornography much of the time), on television, and in books - sex is more prevalent, less meaningful. Stories are full of disappointed hopes and disillusionment… as if it is foolish to expect much else. I cannot express how many times I have enjoyed a book until the characters cross that once-sacred threshold. Not even Elizabeth I in Alison Weir's otherwise wonderful The Lady Elizabeth is allowed to escape dangerous romances at a young age. Most stories are love stories, but only a small portion of them do more than cater to marketed "needs"… like The Notebook and its companions… where "love" is little more than a theme badly constricted in a formula, to the point where it grates on the value of characters and drags the story away from creativity… from a writer's unique drive to write outside the lines.

So in the broader context of sitcoms and ridiculous dramas, love is a blanket term for giggles, scandal and situations that end badly. Like smoking cigarettes - this kind of cynicism is a gradual road to an early loveless demise.

It is utter sadness! Because as human beings we were meant to love, and we reduce it to foolishness and hormones. Does this mean that the characters in my novel exist only to live out ideals that I could never have? No! It is our God-given gift, to love. Love is a deep, difficult enigma, maintained through sacrifice, self-denial, grace! Grace is such a big part of it. Forgiveness and acceptance without having to earn it. Loved because you're lovable, looking beyond facades and surface impressions, and touches the real person. It isn't just an emotion. It's something deeper, a journey that is as different as the characters who fall unexpectedly into its arms. This is why Doctor Who - yes, you knew it would pop up somewhere in this post - is so powerful, especially when it comes to the Doctor's relationship with Rose… a love doomed many times over, but strong enough to push Rose across parallel worlds to return to him. And the Doctor, in the tragedy of his immortality, literally leaves her with his double - a human version of himself - the only way the Doctor could fully give himself to her… with the greatest love comes the greatest pain… and vice versa. He has to walk away, while Rose begins her life with a man who is himself, but separate from his experience.

That is why I refuse to become a literary lemming and jump off the everybody-expects-this cliff. If love is truly boundless - than it shouldn't always mimicRomeo and Juliet (note that Shakespeare called it a tragedy not a romance!)… or Pretty Woman… or The Little Mermaid. (Feel free to insert here the first obnoxious romance that pops into your mind !) Love is a chameleon "very often mistaken for loathing" as Yvaine expresses in Stardust, and is full of surprises. And the surprises, the questions, the possibilities, the GREAT UNKNOWN is what I want to write about… not what every poor soul is trained to reach for!

I leave you with a picture. In the last episode of Series Four of Doctor Who ("Journey's End"), Rose says to the Doctor, "The last time I stood on this beach on the worst day of my life, what did you say to me?"

The Doctor's face is stern, and sad, as he prepares to leave Rose and the other Doctor behind. "I said 'Rose Tyler'."

"Yeah, and how was that sentence going to end?"

He hesitates. "Does it need saying?"

Rose turns to the Doctor's human double (wearing a blue suit). "And you Doctor? How would you finish that sentence?"

His answer: leaning over and whispering the magic words in her ear. We can all guess what they were:

And was it worth it? Yes! No shame in powerful, bittersweet beginnings. If a picture - a journey - like this is not a part of my writing… I can't imagine that I would want to write at all!

Happy writing, dreaming and loving!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Writer's Tale (from Michelle)

I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry; I really am trying not to post too often about Doctor Who, but I am apparently failing. But I found this amazing extract from The Writer's Tale online this morning, with some amazing insights into that most meaningless of phrases, "finding your voice."

You can view the full article here, and it contains lots of lovely spoilerage for the Christmas special, as well as some things that make me sad (like, referring to River Song as "the Doctor's wife" - I really can't deal with the idea of him marrying that irritating woman. Too bad they couldn't get Kate Winslet, I probably would have loved her then...ANYway!).

But for those of you who don't suffer from Who addiction, I'll just extract the best bit, the bit any writer might be interested in:

You ask how a writer finds their voice. Now, that's a question!... Gaining a voice, whatever that is, comes with experience and practice - and the writing, again, is indivisible from the person. Your voice tends to be something that other people talk about, about you. It's not something that you think about much yourself, and certainly not whilst writing. I never - never - sit here thinking, what's my voice? You might as well ponder, who am I? It is, in fact, exactly the same thing. You can wonder your whole life and you'll never get an answer to that. After all these years of wondering, I've never realised those last four sentences quite so clearly! This Great Correspondence does me good.
So the voice exists simply because you exist. You find your voice by writing, by experience. You can see voices in scripts, can't you?...

...Again, again, again, scripts don't just live in Script World; they exist alongside everything else that you love and hate in your whole, wide, mad, lovely life. You copy from - or rather, are influenced by - everything...
It's so important to start writing, because then the process never, ever ends. Finding your voice isn't the last stage, just another stage along the way. You reach the top of that mountain, only to see a whole bloody, endless range of mountains waiting beyond. You've a million more things to reach for, a million more variations on your voice to articulate.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Showing the Monster: Cthulhu and Frankenstein (from Michelle)

I appear to be on a bit of horror-reading jag, which is surprising from the girl who got nightmares from Bunnicula as a child. Nevertheless.

I've been thinking about the issue of Whether or Not to Show the Reader the Monster. The story that I'm currently working on has a bit of a monster in it - or a strange creature, at least - so it has some personal weight. In any case, I am undecided about whether it's effective to describe a frightening sight when you're trying to scare a reader.

Mary Shelley and H.P. Lovecraft, two acknowledged giants of the genre, seem to take somewhat different approaches. In Frankenstein, Shelley does some initial description of Frankenstein's monster (black lips, yellow skin, etc.) but mostly she relies on the horror he inspires in others to convey his supernatural ugliness. She says: "No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived" (Signet edition, p. 43). In other words, there's a lot of it's-too-horrible-for-words going on here.

In contrast to Shelley, Lovecraft (prone as he is to heaping abstract nouns on top of each other) is actually pretty specific about what Cthulhu looks like in "The Call of Cthulhu": squid head, dragon-body, yet somehow humanoid. He's also very specific about the slimy trail he leaves behind. It's all very Ghostbusters.

The problem is that I found neither Frankenstein's monster nor Cthulhu terribly frightening - at least not in visual terms. If I had to choose, I think I would come down on Shelley's side, because the horror you don't see is always more terrifying. In fact, the most chilling part of "The Call of Cthulhu" for me wasn't the actual emergence of the monster but the weird rituals of his cult and the vaguely referenced "strange disfigurements" of the people they stole for their practices. Yikes.

The tricky thing about horror, I think, is that it so quickly can become dated. "The Call of Cthulhu," for instance, reminded me strongly of Ghostbusters, but of course Ghostbusters only exists as it is because of Lovecraft. (Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, as the Doctor would say.) To scare people, you must constantly be finding something new or surprising. In actual fact, a book hasn't scared me properly since Bunnicula gave me nightmares. The closest I've come to being scared has come from particularly shadowy psychological moments in Harry Potter (like the explanation of the Unforgivable Curses; or the conjuring of the Dark Mark; or the exploration of Voldy's early life). Then there are, of course, some of the lovely creepy characters on Doctor Who, particularly Steven Moffatt's creations. Unfortunately, I don't think the chills Moffatt creates are available to me as a writer, because they rely on the visual shock of, say, a gas mask or a twisted clockwork harlequin.

What gives me chills now are brutalities such as you see in the proliferating crime shows like Law and Order, films about serial killers, and even the latest BBC adaptations of Sherlock Holmes. And frankly, I'm not at all interested in emulating those chills in my fiction. They are not the fun and thought-provoking chills of classic horror: as far as I'm concerned, the degree to which they rely on the victimization of women is incredibly disturbing and says something about the sadomasochistic impulses of our current culture. But that's another story.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Mary Poppins (from Michelle)

It's Friday, a day not to take things too seriously.

In honor of this auspicious occasion, here's a quote a friend sent me, from P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins:

Pluck me a Flower,
And catch me a Star,
And braize them in Butter,
And Treacle and Tar.
How delicious they are!

Write something silly today, and have a great weekend!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

More Thoughts on Character (from Michelle)

I was thinking more about my endless post on Lorna Doone, and it occurred to me that it doesn't really take account of character growth or change. That's pretty silly, because often character change is the story, or at least what drives it.

When I say that characters ought to be "consistent," I don't think I mean that they ought to be static. But they ought to be...whole, somehow. One being, not a cipher to do whatever you need them to do in a story.

Characters I can think of off the top of my head who undergo change but remain whole/consistent/real: Harold Crick in Stranger Than Fiction; King Lear; Ebenezer Scrooge; Pip from Great Expectations; the Beast in Beauty and the Beast; Frodo in Lord of the Rings; Cassandra in I Capture the Castle; Karenin (Anna's husband) in Anna Karenina (I adore the very human unreliability of his character!)

There are probably more, but it's late and I'm trying not to write an endless post!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Wisdom from Cassandra

I am in the process of re-reading I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Wonderful in so many ways. Cassandra is a writer like us, describing the oftimes batty goings-on of living in a rundown castle with her mad writer father (must run in the family), a kind-hearted, if not free-spirited stepmother and sister Rose. Here is a breath of wisdom from a beautifully written book:

When I read a book, I try to put in all the imagination I can, so that it is almost like writing the book as well as reading it - or, rather, it is like living it.

Ah, there's bliss!

Storyteller or Movie Mogul? (Jillian)

I could not think of a better title for this blog, but that is all right. Hopefully it got your attention. A subject that has come to mind recently is George Lucas... in a not-so-pleasant article written last month as Lucas' ridiculous Clone Wars movie was about to debut to a creatively exhausted audience. Okay, that's probably unfair, but read this article written by Jim Emerson of msn.com. There is more to discuss!

In a nutshell, the writer is begging George to please, please stop making useless, pointless films. It makes a lot of good points about how his projects over the past thirty plus years have all been related directly to either Star Wars or Indiana Jones. Basically, GL has literally built an empire on both franchises... to the point where I am inclined to gently insist, "Mr. Lucas, you created something wonderful years ago. I think it's time to stop." The article goes too far, however, to strike at the heart of all of those projects... to imply that the world might have been better off if Lucas hadn't had a stroke of madness (or genius) back in the 1970s. Is that really true? Come on.

I began my creative journey as a little devoted Star Wars fan back in 1997. Worlds away, I have since expanded my universe (ha ha) away from wars amongst the stars to TARDISes and adventures in the English countryside. Knowing what I know from eleven years of being immersed in the burden of Jedi and the continuing war, and creating my own installments in the eternal saga (that would one day be a part of my undergraduate studies), I can say that Lucas wasn't insane or greedy by any means when he set out to bring Star Wars to the world. It was his baby. It took him around three years to develop the story which would produce the first trilogy... based off of stories he loved as a kid while also drawing on A Hero With a Thousand Faces to guide him into more traditional, more meaningful story telling. How much did Star Wars mean to him? It was a low-budget project no one believed in, and between finalizing the script and directing it, he nearly gave himself a heart attack orchestrating the development of visual affects that would bring it to life. That combined with an array of personal crises demonstrates that Lucas was devoted to it completely. The fact he returned to deliver three more in my lifetime is utterly amazing... and merits the utmost respect. For the most part...

George Lucas is a story teller, but not the greatest writer in the world. I won't go into painful details about how the script of the "prequel trilogy" feels wooden and the story unnatural. That's the subject of a different rant. Those films did become the butt of many a movie-going joke... and still are to a wide extent. We could attribute it to a number of GL-based causes. But we cannot use those reasons - however legitimate they are - to destroy every thing that he worked for. His films are still powerful, still permanent. And they emerged for the first time to a world that was in desperate need of hope and of heroes who began their journeys as ordinary people literally thrown together in a garbage compactor on a enemy space station. GL worked hard against all odds to create the story that he needed to create, and the result was actually quite impressive. From Star Wars emerged the ability to look at story telling in films in a better light - less impossible to reach those limitless skies. Films we love (and those we make fun of) would not have been possible without GL making the first step. The one thing that I couldn't fathom not having? Peter Jackson's rendering of The Lord of the Rings. And what about Pirates of the Caribbean? The list is infinite.

One storyteller inspires another... who inspires another... building down the generations. A spark can start a fire...

Whatever he is doing now - such as releasing silly animated films still stuck in the Clone Wars - it does not necessarily tarnish the story he began telling with Luke Skywalker standing in the dusk watching the twin suns set above him and wishing to be far, far away... waiting for the chance to sacrifice himself for a galaxy that needed him desperately. GL may not be the most ideal or prolific writer, but he still has a story to tell... one that moves him to keep creating and maintaining a reality he knows better than anyone.

I personally won't give much thought to the Clone Wars. But I will give my nod to the man who started the wheels turning for my own ideas and my own galaxies all those years ago. The world would never be the same without such madness. I should know. Write because others say you're mad. Then, the world will talk.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Lorna Doone --- BEWARE SPOILERS!!! (by Michelle)

Last night I watched the 2000 BBC adaptation of Lorna Doone, and it has fired my soul with a single desire: namely, never to read Lorna Doone. I realize it's a beloved book of many, and the film had many good qualities. These include:

  1. The presence of the fanstastically named Honeysuckle Weeks (of Foyle's War fame) as John Ridd's sister;
  2. Barbara Flynn turning in a performance way too good for the whole project;
  3. Michael Kitchen in a Restoration-era wig;
  4. Jesse Spencer (Chase from House) with powdered face; and
  5. A valiant attempt by the villain to escape the whole ridiculous film via a pit of quicksand.
  6. Oh, and swashbuckling. Gotta love swashbuckling.

I'm posting about it, though, because it actually got me thinking about character. Specifically, how to write decent ones.

My main quarrel with the film is that the characters were inconsistent, and I couldn't figure out their motivations. This is fatal in a story that purports to be about deep-seated jealousies and hatred. Nothing was deep-seated for these people. I don't blame the screenwriter, Adrian Hodges, for this, as it seems to be more or less the structure of R.D. Blackmore's book that these people have very short attention spans.

At the beginning of the movie, the whole problem with a relationship between John and Lorna is that he's a Ridd and she's a Doone (i.e., Oh noes! Montagues and Capulets!). However, John shows almost no struggle in getting over this obstacle, and he's not like Romeo, detached from his family feud. Instead, he's filled with hate and at the heart of it...until he realizes that apparently, Doones can be pretty, and all the visceral hatred goes out the window.

Then, halfway through, we find out that ***SPOILER ALERT*** she's not a Doone after all! However, I can't help feeling that really, this would cause very little change in her familial feelings. They would get more complicated, but she would still feel like a Doone. Well, you would think so, but it is not so, my friends. In a moment that reminded me strongly of the end of Arsenic and Old Lace ("Elaine! Elaine! I'm the son of a sea cook!") she pretty much just said "SWEET!" and got on with her life.

Unfortunately, we still had a lot of story to get through, so the tensions then had to come from elsewhere, and they came from similar about-faces from characters who formerly had held onto certain principles for dear life. For example, the maid who was all smiles about Lorna and John earlier suddenly decides that her precious mistress can't marry a farmer.

The villain similarly had very obscure motivations. I'm sure the actor, Aiden Gillen, had a clear idea of his character, but the story sure didn't. Was he just a punk? Was he power-mad? Was he obsessed with Lorna? Did he love the Doone Valley? The movie offered all of these explanations, but none of them were particularly convincing. He just seemed to be a Bad Man. And I'm afraid his final demise had me in stitches...sorry...but he looked just like Tony Shalhoub at the end of The Imposters.

OK, I'm cheap-shotting a lot at easy targets, but this kind of inconsistency in character is much more common than you might think. I was ultimately highly unimpressed with what I saw of Season 1 of Heroes, because I felt that the scripts had many of the same problems. Take Milo Ventimiglia's character and his love interest: her father is dying, and she's making eyes at his nurse?? Her father's death was just a script vehicle to get the pretty faces together. Likewise, Ali Larter's character wakes up in a room spattered with blood and corpses, and in the very next scene, she's calling her son, saying tranquilly, "I'll be home soon, sweetheart." Where was the residual horror about her situation?

I'm just noticing a lot lately how often characters are just cardboard cutouts for the writers to walk through their outlandish situations. They're collections of quirks and qualities (this one has a really deep voice and a lot of anger; this one is addicted to painkillers; this one works in an art museum and is kind of funky), but they don't respond consistently to the events in their "lives."

This is why I have nothing but the deepest respect for Russell T Davies and Doctor Who, because the characters are, by and large, consistent (please enjoy the photo of Donna's character standing up to deep scrutiny). Even when the story's getting weird, he always remembers what his characters hold most dear, what they would think of first and foremost. Hence, we get the continual family theme in Rose's stories, and almost all the episodes in Series 2 comment in some veiled way on the sacrifices Rose and the Doctor will make for each other.

This is also why my favorite character in Lorna Doone was Anthony Calf's: Tom, the Reformed Highwayman. He actually responded to things consistently, didn't undergo any total metamorphoses. He was a criminal; decided to change his life; fell off the wagon; came back. He had much more consistency than anyone else in the whole thing.

Still, on general principle: ALL HAIL THE BBC! Even when they're not so great, they give me something to think about. And I don't mean to suggest that creating characters is easy: the fact that some of the most lauded shows in the business have trouble with it should tell you that it's hard. But absolutely worth doing!

Why Daedalus? (by Michelle)

Why indeed?

The myth of Daedalus is worth knowing, even if it is one of ancient Greece's more disturbing contributions to our cultural heritage. It nevertheless makes an interesting corollary to the story of his son, Icarus (the guy who flew too close to the sun and consequently fell into the sea).

Daedalus was a craftsman of Crete, and the queen of Crete, Pasiphae, developed a passion for a bull (yuck). He built her a cow suit so she could consummate it (double yuck). The result was the Minotaur, a monster half man and half bull.

Daedalus then built the Labyrinth as a prison for the monstrous creation. Unfortunately, he was then imprisoned himself, presumably so the awful truth wouldn't get out. But he built an escape: wax wings, so he and his son, Icarus, could fly away from Crete. His son was a bit thick and ignored his injunction to "take the middle path" (let's hear it for the golden mean!) and so his wings melted and he fell into the sea.

What's the point of my telling this slightly gross story? Simply this: Icarus is often allegorized as a model for people who want to achieve something that is not a guaranteed success: "Carpe diem! Seize the day! If you never try you'll never know. Who cares if you fail as long as you fail gloriously?" Or, alternately: "Remember Icarus. Don't overreach yourself. Just be content with what you have." But I'm not a Romantic or a pragmatist, and I don't particularly want to go down in flames.

So what about Daedalus? Perhaps he is a better candidate for allegory, for the artist anyway. Be clever, develop your artifice. If you make something horrible (like a Minotaur), you can figure out how to neutralize it. And if you end up in deep trouble (imprisoned on Crete) you can be resourceful and devise a way out. You will find a way to keep living and keep making things. Invention is a powerful thing; it doesn't make life perfect, but you can trust to your inventive abilities to help you to live.

It's not a perfect allegory. Don't ask me anything about Perdix, Attic blood, or what Daedalus' failure to impart any good sense to Icarus means. I don't know. I'm not a medieval encyclopedist.

Check out Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book VIII if you want to read about Daedalus and Icarus first-hand. I like the Oxford Classics edition, translated by A.D. Melville. But, as LeVar would say, you don't have to take my word for it...

Monday, September 1, 2008

Michelle's Inaugural Post

Welcome, all! Welcome, particularly, writers of every dye, to this space where, I hope, you will find thoughts about "the writing life" that do not involve the difficulties of publishing or making a living.

I'm a writer of sorts, starting out and seized by stories and trying to figure out how it fits into my life. It's a pretty thankless task, because we live in a society that doesn't think things are worth doing unless they are a certain path to at least a moderate amount of money and a health care plan. (I am not for a moment knocking health care plans.) I'm pretty convinced that there are many more writers out there than dare to announce themselves as such, and who can blame them?

There are lots of great resources on the interwebs that help you with what to do once you have a story or a poem or a play. Even before you're ready to publish, however, and in fact because of the terror that that the publishing world can inspire, it takes courage to create.

I solemnly promise that on this page you will not find any lists of How To Ingratiate Yourself To Editors, nor will you discover any catalogs of How Long It Took Me To Get Published. I don't mean to devalue such things; they are necessary and helpful. God bless The Writer's Market, but am I the only one who gets a migraine just by seeing the thing across the room?

We all need rejuvenation, encouragement, the little nudge to get us "making things" again, and so I solemnly promise that you will find here a good book recommendation, a fun quote, a beautiful photo, or an absurd critical essay on Postmodernism in Doctor Who.

This is the blog I need, and I can't find it. I doubt that I am the only one.

Whoever you are, please enjoy, and feel free to comment. I love feeling that I'm not writing into a void - though of course, rules of civility apply. Disagree by all means, but please be urbane about it. :)


to a blog by three people who write, for anyone else who wants to write. It's a cruel world for creators, and here we promise support, whimsy, and curiosity that will hopefully keep your pen moving and keyboard tapping!

To read more about why Daedalus Notes exists, click