31 January 2011

Lucky McKee's "The Woman," Horror, and Offense

I don't generally follow buzz out of Sundance, but I sat up and took notice when Lucky McKee's new film, "The Woman," started generating a hullabaloo last week. Co-authored by Jack Ketchum, author of The Girl Next Door, "The Woman" sounds like it's a real button-pusher. Writing at HitFix, Drew McWeeny notes that "'The Woman' outrages and offends with surgical skill."  He also offers a first-person account of the dustup that occurred at the midnight screening of the film at Sundance. In addition to numerous peaceful walkouts and one notable fainting episode, the film gave one guy a serious case of the rage virus, which a bystander recorded for posterity. To be fair, it does kind of suck that it's really tough to get away with having a giant temper tantrum in a public place these days. But even a casual glance at the first few minutes of the video evidence will tell you that  the rage virus takes you to a place beyond caring.

Given the McKee / Ketchum collaboration going on here, I'm not too surprised that "The Woman" is freaking people out. McKee's May, starring the luminous Angela Bettis, portrays an extremely oddball, so-wrong-she's-right female protagonist so skillfully that if you've got even the merest hint of an inner freak, you will be cheering. Clearly, McKee has a deep investment in understanding female desire and the ways in which it can lie beyond the pale.

That in itself is going to ruffle feathers.

And Jack Ketchum. The Girl Next Door came out in 1989. I remember the shelves at the bookstore in our local mall crammed with paperback copies of this book, the "x" in "next" rendered extra large and shiny. There have since been new editions, and a recent film version which Stephen King called "authentically shocking." A couple of years ago, I decided to read the novel. It was riveting and totally brutal. Jack Ketchum has mad skills when it comes to presenting human savagery. The Girl Next Door doesn't let you turn away until it's all over.

When you subject your audience to things they don't want to see, in a way that makes them care, that's powerful stuff. That's a recipe for the best kind of offense.

Most horror films only deal with the first part of the equation: showing us things we don't want to see. That's part of the titillation of horror. When it's done well, it can thrill you and leave you with a sense that regular reality has been disrupted.

Since I am super duper susceptible and easily freaked, I enjoy any film that takes the time to show me something I don't want to see, and that does it in a way that's convincing (The Exorcist), so over the top it becomes almost ballet-like (Neil Marshall's Doomsday), or so over the top it becomes hilarious and melds into slapstick-with-guts (Slither). There are other good, artful ways to show things we don't want to see. We don't necessarily care that much about the characters or about what happens to them (The Ring), but we are still engaged because what is happening is really disorienting, disturbing, or - a rare but always delightful trick - creates schadenfreude (Drag Me to Hell).

When a film or work of fiction makes us care - really care - that's when it has the potential to become true nightmare fuel. Because Stephen King is very, very great at creating characters that are easy to relate to, a lot of his work taps into this dynamic. The dad in The Shining - the role made famous by Jack Nicholson in the Kubrick adaptation - is fascinating because he's no better or worse than your everyday household tyrant. He's got the potential for violence, which he moderates until he can't any longer. A lot of us have dads like that. A lot of us are like that, or have felt like we could become that. So when things start getting supernatural in the story, the stakes are that much higher.

In print, it's not so rare to come across the magic combination of making us care and going to places we don't want to go. Back in the horror heyday of the 90s, writers like Poppy Z. Brite (you could do worse than read everything he ever wrote) and Kathe Koja did incredible things with that formula (and I understand that Kathe Koja is back in the saddle again: she is awesome buy all of her books posthaste!).

Filmakers face a set of different challenges when it comes to making us give a damn about their horror characters. Hollywood is still stuck in splatstick mode, for the most part. In an interview with Movieline, McKee talks about how this goes:

Horror films are starting to be treated like roller coaster rides at amusement parks. You go to a meeting in Hollywood and they’re like, “This is what we want to do — what do you think the good kills will be?”

Yikes. If that's the question you're asking, then chances are the kills won't be all that good.

Although I dearly love horror films and will keep seeing them, my heart soars when a horror filmmaker breaks out and makes something genuinely upsetting. When it comes right down to it, making us care and showing us what we don't want to see is not only a great formula for upsetting folks: it's also a great formula for raising consciousness - by which I mean making us think, but more specifically inviting us to go deeper in exploring the whys and wherefores of our lives.

I love horror because I want art that takes me by the shoulders and shakes me as hard as it can. I want to feel challenged. I want to wake up to new truths, or new shadows of truths.

This is where things get tricky. A lot of people who aren't horror fans or aren't attuned to the genre or have only seen the most superficial examples of the genre or base their opinions exclusively on that trailer for Alien Vs. Predator that they saw by accident a few years ago - well, they probably won't follow me here. Yes, the roller coaster model of horror movie making can simply create a shut down of sorts. The violence becomes merely cartoony, the whole thing loses its edge, and we find ourselves yawning through decapitation and murder and mayhem. Yes. But horror is uniquely situated to do the opposite of desensitization. It can really get you where you live.

Remember the kerfuffles around Pan's Labyrinth? (If you haven't seen Pan's Labyrinth, stop what you're doing and go see it immediately you will thank me.) This film is no more violent than others. Schindler's List had far more kills and way more graphic scenes in it. But it is really emotionally engaging. Personally, I grooved on it because it was booked into a Washington DC art house one of the years I was down there. The art house crowd was just totally unprepared for Guillermo del Toro. It blew them away.

What films like Pan's Labyrinth do, I think, is to resensitize us to violence. Where we've become jaded, we can become open and vulnerable again. This is a great thing.

Presenting the worst, most disturbing realities while making us care can invite us to become more conscious and more aware, not less. I know, I know. It's easier to be entertained sometimes. Sometimes, you just want to turn your brain off and shut down. Go watch yourself some Jerry Springer until you get that out of your system.

If you never challenge yourself, though, then how much can you expect to get out of your life? I like to think that we are here to think, understand, and process the art of being, not to simply confirm everything we already believe. This is the beauty of consuming art that makes you want to flinch: it invites you to ask why. This is the beauty of offense: it invites you to explore the borders of your personal tolerances. It turns the world upside down so you can look at it in a different way.

If there is no chance that what you're reading or watching will offend you on some level, then why bother? I feel the same way about comedy: if there is zero chance that it will offend someone (especially me), then I'm pretty sure there is zero chance that it's funny. I love seeing films and reading fiction and experiencing art that takes risks. If it goes too far for me, well, I'll applaud it even harder.

It sounds like The Woman is tailor made to evoke a strong response. In addition to posting those clips of that one dude's big freakout, McWeeny's article makes some very excellent points about what McKee is up to in this film. He writes:

"The Woman," written by Jack Ketchum and McKee, is a fable about the smiling psychopath that our society is built to support, and the women he keeps under his thumb in his home. The entire film's tone is somewhat heightened, the color palette jacked up, and the entire thing playing out more like a remembered dream than a literal story.  It is harrowing in a way that few horror films are for me these days, emotionally demanding.  It is extreme, but more in terms of the psychology and the toll on the personalities of the characters than in terms of overt onscreen violence.

If the film is about critiquing the way our culture supports the "smiling psychopath," then its plot seems aimed at exploring the consequences of this situation in thorough, brutal ways:

Chris Cleek is a soft-featured family man, and Sean Bridgers does an amazing job in the role.  He is as nauseating a character as I've seen in a film in quite a while, and it's the little touches that really make the performance special.  He is hunting one afternoon in the woods near his house when he sees a feral, animal-like woman, filthy and wounded, washing herself in the creek.  One look at her naked torso, and he never looks back.  A plan occurs to him, fully formed, and he starts by going home and modifying the cellar of his barn.  He tells his family he's going to bring home a surprise, and right away, there's something about this family that just feels fundamentally broken.  His wife Belle (Angela Bettis) and his daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) are both like ghosts, barely there, cowed by something, while his son Brian (Zach Rand) is blank-faced, filled with cruelty, barely able to pretend to be human.  If that's where they start, then imagine where they end up after Chris reveals his surprise:  he has captured the feral Woman (the remarkable Pollyanna McIntosh), and he has her bound in the cellar, where they are going to, as a family, "fix her."

Ironically, the guy who freaked out at the end of the movie spent a lot of time shouting about how the film degrades women (and men?). Apparently, it's an equal opportunity degradation. It is always disturbing when someone holds a mirror up to the dirtiest, grossest parts of humanity and forces you to take a look. After reading McWeeny's article, I was really looking forward to seeing this film. But I got even more excited after reading McKee's interview with MovieLine about his reasons for making The Woman:

the whole point of me making this film was that I’ve been tagged as a horror director but had never felt like I’d really made a horror film. And I was like, if you really want a horror film let’s get into some really scary stuff, and let’s not do it with monsters — let’s do it with people....The idea of it is that it’s supposed to get people to think about how they treat people, how they treat themselves. It’s supposed to spark that sort of stuff in an emotional way, and it’s supposed to scare you! There’s nothing more scary than a f*cking human being. We do some pretty awful things, and the thing that’s scary about it is we know what we’re doing, we’re conscious of it.

This is why I love horror as a genre, and why I hope more people will give the Jack Ketchums and the Lucky McKees of the world a shot and attention and wide distribution in theatres everywhere. Like nothing else, horror has the capacity to get to the heart of why we feel sad, alone, scared and upset with our lives. Because we are, as a species, as a culture, seriously fucked up, there will never be an end to our need for this type of storytelling. We have to process it somehow, you know? If we forget how to recoil from the seedier, more disgusting, and utterly unethical parts of ourselves, if we forget that we should recoil and reject those parts and embrace something better, then it will always be as crappy as it is right now.

23 January 2011

A Short Round-Up

Over at Killing the Buddha, Hillary White's article, "Cutting it Out," discusses Mormon DVD players and their terrifying, magical ability to edit out potentially offensive filmic moments.

Disclaimer: I think Twilight is silly and potentially damaging, although I probably would have gone nuts for it if I'd been twelve when the first book came out. But: yuck. Just yuck. (In case you're scared to click through as you should be, InStyle Magazine has gathered together some wedding planners so they can fake plan Edward and Bella's wedding.) Potential Twilight-and-feminism commentroversy over at Zachary Little's blog, if you're into Twilight-related commentroversy. Or you could just go hang out at Reasoning with Vampires and be done with it.

Eileen at Speak Coffee to Me blogged this already, but I saw it first! I saw it first!

21 January 2011


About a year ago, I took a community course for writers, which was basically a learn-to-critique-others course - a handy skill, indeed. The slightly unfortunate part of the course was that it took place in Burlington, which is a much less interesting, much wealthier, and much more WASP-ish town than the Hammer. I struggled a little bit with the sensibilities of some of the other course participants. (Okay, I struggled a whole heck of a lot with them. Basically, we're talking about people who for the most part seemed transported directly from the more conservative environs of Mad Men.) Even more than that, I struggled with the way a lot of them were approaching the act of writing.

Not the best choice of role models, but feel free to dress this well.
A lot of these good men and women had been labouring for some time on just one big project. For a couple of them, the twelve-week course I was a part of was their third time around with the same project. This was true for the woman writing the conceptually and stylistically impressive literary novel about the woman who had travelled to Northern Ontario to bury the body of her mother. It was also true of the woman writing the not-so-great novel about a woman finding love/potential rapists (I was never sure which it was) in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And of the woman who was putting together a short story collection the theme of which was Christmas. They'd spent twenty-four weeks of workshop already on these things, and they weren't writing anything else.

Me, on the other hand: I was workshopping my not-quite-vampire WiP, while producing short story after short story and planning another novel. I wrote during the course, fresh stuff on the WiP. I polished (and published) a flash fiction piece sometime in the first week or two.

I knew from the beginning of the course that my writing was different. None of the other participants were doing genre stuff (unless you count YA, which I don't unless it's speculative YA), a fact that eventually caused me to ditch the course. It took me a few weeks in, however, to realize that I was approaching the entire task of writing differently. They were using slender razors to carve increasingly intricate patterns on the same piece of paper. I was using a shotgun to blow massive, unpredictable holes in the sides of any number of plywood shacks from week to week. My work was focused in all kinds of different directions. And there was no telling what beasts would come flying out when the walls finally fell apart.

The penny dropped when I brought part of a new short story to the group. "I'm amazed that you can work on more than one thing at a time," said a Serious Novelist. "I don't know how you do that."

I don't know that I've ever considered working only on one big thing at a time. In grad school, you can't. Even when you're writing your thesis, you're also teaching a class, grading papers, heading off to conferences, and trying to get published. While the topic areas on all these different projects might vaguely resemble each other,  you have to learn how to task switch to survive. As a freelancer, I'm aware that one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to put all of your eggs in one basket. To diversify across clients is to have a better chance of surviving if a client goes down.

In creative writing, I know I am still learning. I hope I never stop learning. And if I work exclusively on one big project, I'll miss out on the valuable experimentation and excitement of actually finishing something that I get from writing short stories. And if there's only one big project going on at a time, well, what am I going to work on if I get stuck?

Then again, I find that working on so many things at the same time can end up making me feel a little cuckoo. At least a couple of times a day, I wake up to the sudden realization that I've totally forgotten to work on a WiP.

I'm all like, "Gah! I haven't written a new novel chapter in a week! How am I going to get back into my plot?"

Or I'll check out the calendar and it will be "Yikes! I'd planned to submit a story somewhere by last Thursday! But I haven't decided which one yet!"

(I live this way too. Every day it's "Crap! It's 5:00 and I was supposed to pick up Dave at 5:00. Why didn't I leave the house yet?" This is an unfortunate side effect of multitasking.)

But I'm not alone in these habits. Eileen Wiedbrauk of Speak Coffee to Me writes,

I'm always working on ten projects.  I think that's a conservative yet realistic number for what I'm doing.  I have four novel projects on the "this year" list. Ha. Other novel projects are chillin in the bread box.  I'm writing one academic paper, editing another.  I'm actively editing two short stories, and I've got another few who are patiently waiting their turn.  And then there's the teaching projects.  So ten seems about right.
The end result is that it seems like nothing gets done.  I work bit by bit, accomplishing a little bit more on each task daily.  But then I get frustrated for not finishing--much like I get frustrated when I over task my computer and slow it down.

She suggests a solution:

I'm beginning to think I need to streamline my process more.  Multi-task less.  Produce more finished items rather than switching projects.

Amen to that. I always, always wish that I could see the end of some of my projects a whole heck of a lot faster. It seems that the ones I do finish always happen with a whiz-bang. No coincidence that I've finished more flash pieces than anything else in recent months. The light at the end of the tunnel is just that much closer when your word count limit is under 1k.

I guess I don't see changing my multi-tasking tendencies anytime soon, but I do think that for me, the key is patience. I'm hoping it will also help that I'm scheduling some time to finish pieces of writing on a more frequent basis - if only so I can remember how. 

For some writers and other work-at-home types, scheduling is key. Charity Bradford at My Writing Journey recently posted about working out a daily schedule as a way to make sure her needs as a writer and her family's needs get met. What I like about Charity's schedule is that she's partitioning time for social networking as well as raw word count. In other words, she's making sure that she stays in touch with her support group of online writers. She's also got exercise scheduled in there. That's genius, Charity. Because I teach tai chi and attend classes so I can stay on top of my game, I have exercise enmeshed in most of my days, but I find that I do need to pay attention if I'm going to get time to play outside - meaning hikes in the woods or at the local park with the dog. (You all are getting regular exercise, right?)

On the other end of the spectrum, Loralie Hall at Apathy’s Hero talks about the demoralizing effects of setting a schedule and realizing that it just isn't for you. Of course, if you're like Loralie and setting a blogging schedule means you actually end up rereading and editing a novel project, you basically win.

So I realize that "schedule" isn't quite the name for what I do. What I do is more like "make a vague plan and emotional commitment involving as many people as possible and potential public shame, then cram it in somewhere when you finally settle down to work." This style of scheduling works best when it's combined with a little bit of a relaxed sense of obligation to the outside world, a sense of space in the course of a day, a sense that I don't have to rush. Even if I'm doing a lot and I will, in fact, have to rush at some point, if I can achieve that relaxed state of mind, then writing is much more likely to happen.

Ultimately, I think managing my life as a writer is more about the inner game of writing than the external, time-slotting game. I want to be like Trisha Leaver, who seems to be some kind of task-switching prodigy:

Yesterday I was asked how I do it . . . how I can switch from one set of characters to another multiple times a day. My answer: Mental White Board.
I am insanely organized. I don’t have a date book or a wall calendar posted anywhere in my house, nor do I use my computers handy post-it reminder system.  What I do have is this huge white board in my head, one that not only keeps tracks of appointments and coffee-dates, but has character maps, plot lines, and red-line editing projects clearly drawn out. It is so vivid I can actually smell my imaginary sharpie marker.
When I move from one project to the next throughout the day, I simply shuffle whiteboards. . . toss one to the back while bringing another forward.


I guess the bottom line is that you should do whatever keeps your hand moving, right? The thrill and promise of raw word count is great, as is the elbow grease required to get a manuscript from first draft to finished. And submitting I find weirdly satisfying. Although it is a struggle to get a story to the point where it's ready to go, it's worth it. As Misa Buckley, writing about the importance of audience, says:

unless my writing is read, then it's just words on a page. It doesn't live And I remain a writer.
So this is my belief. That writing doesn't matter, nor editing, nor subbing. Not even being published. It's not until someone picks up my book and reads it that I become an author.
Happy plotting, writing, subbing, and getting read, everyone.

19 January 2011

Happy Birthday, Edgar Allan Poe

It's the 202nd anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe's birthday, and we all get a present! Since we all can't be at Fergie's Pub in Philly tonight to celebrate with the Raven Society,  Random House offers us this spooky, atmospheric reading of Ulalume, performed by Jeff Buckley.

18 January 2011

Write 1 Sub 1

Inspired by the lovely Misa Buckley, I have decided to participate in the Write 1 Sub 1 challenge. The insano version.

I realize that I am tired of setting goals and then wishy-washying out on them. I love the idea of having a little community of writers who are all trying to do something rather rigorous (like a mini-NaNo, or maybe not so mini?).

You should totally sign up for this. Seriously.

12 January 2011

The Broken Aquariums of Will Ferrell

Early this morning I was deep in a dream that my good friend Will Ferrell had purchased a large quantity of small aquariums (aquariae?) that were all defective.

He picked up one of the aquariums (aquariae?), with its small goldfish swimming happily inside, and turned on a switch that was supposed to turn on the filter. The aquarium made a loud sound, kind of like this:


and then it stopped.

"See?" said Will Ferrell. "It's broken."

"I'm sorry to see that," I replied. "But what about the next one?"

Will Ferrell picked up another aquarium. He turned it on, and the loud, disturbing sound repeated, then stopped.

"Huh," I said. "I'm so sorry this is happening to you. Will the fish be okay?"

"I don't know," said Will Ferrell.

At that point, I came into a sort of consciousness. Sometime in the night, my dog had worked his way up from his customary sleeping position on my feet, to the pillow right beside my head. He's a Boston Terrier. He snores, sometimes incredibly loudly.

Apparently if I'm just the right shade of tired, I can incorporate any external noise into my dream world quite seamlessly.

11 January 2011

Jane Austen's Fight Club


The thing about Jane Austen is, she was quite a bitch. I mean that in the most respectful, loving way possible. You can tell because of her narrative voice. Seriously:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

From the opening of Pride and Prejudice, as if you didn't know that already. This narrative voice belongs to a woman who has watched everyone around her bound by convention, and oblivious to its effects. She sees social obligation where others simply see "the way things are." I'm sure that, if you were like minded and a part of her circle, Jane Austen was a breath of fresh air. If you were just another sheeple, she was probably a bit tough to be around.

In any other era, Ms. Austen would have been brawling it up with abandon. She would have Tyler Durdened her way through high society, low society and all points in between. Want to know what that would have looked like? Check out Jane Austen's Fight Club, by the lovely ladies of Relatively Badarse Productions:

The best thing about this trailer is, it's eminently gif-able. Images after the jump, to avoid spoilage if you haven't already viewed the video.

10 January 2011

100 Words for $100 Blogfest Entry

Elena Solodow Means Business
Elena Solodow of You're Write. Except when You're Rong is running a month-long blogfest right now in celebration of her 100th post. The challenge is to write a 100-word sentence. One semi-colon is allowed; I hope she's cool with quotation marks.

This is my entry, inspired by the third story here, via the ever tasty Mysterious Universe. It's 100 words long, if you consider hyphenated words to be one word. Otherwise, it's 101 words long.

by Elizabeth Twist

At first, Sadie didn’t connect the quavering voice on the other end of the phone line with the spectral, black-robed figure who appeared under the apple tree in her backyard each night at dusk, but the more she listened to the stranger speak her antique words of warning, that Sadie’s lover Paul “knows yer money’s under the floor in the spare room, dearie, and he’s got a wife and child down old county road in Upsala, a girlie girl besides up by the lake,” Sadie remembered the spectre’s raised finger, shaking a warning, each time Paul was about to visit.

06 January 2011

Delicious Exhibition, or, Battle of the Green Screens

Because of recent rearrangements in our household, I've been getting up at an ungodly hour this week, and will be doing so for some time. Unfortunately my body has yet to admit that this new schedule requires an earlier bed time, so right now I'm a little punch drunk and crashing out.

Inevitably, this state of mind has led to some random web surfing and revisiting of old amusements.

So now I am in a quandary: I cannot decide which of the following hot messes is the most awesome.

I'll leave it up to you and your conscience to decide:

I give you Shine:

Vs the Hoff:

03 January 2011

Show Me Yours Blogfest: Excerpt from The Gift

My contribution to the Show Me Yours Blogfest is an excerpt from my 2010 NaNoNovel, The Gift (working title). 

A brief bit of background: Alex and Emma work at Outlaw Books. Together they talk pop culture, philosophy, and play a game called “it’s your turn,” as they dare each other to deal with the weirder customers the store always seems to attract. When Emma mocks a customer whom she and Alex have dubbed Johnny Brittle, she triggers an ancient curse that makes her a target for all things evil.

Emma isn’t alone in her new role as monster magnet. Alex is attacked in a park near Emma’s house by a man with tentacles for a face. Although Alex survives, he becomes physically ill after the attack. He asks Emma to help him get home, and to stay in his apartment overnight to make sure he’s okay. After she falls asleep on the couch, he wakes up to discover he isn’t okay after all. This scene takes place after he manages to stumble into the bathroom and turn on the shower.

“The school” is Alex’s name for his five pet fish.

Thanks for reading!

In the mirror, his face looked grey. His lips were white and dry. He stuck his tongue out. It was covered in a sticky white coat. He cleared his throat. Something was in his mouth. He reached in with his fingers and pulled out long cords of sticky mucus, dropping them into the sink.

He looked again at the elbow. The sharp edge of panic rose up in him. Was that something black, there in the centre of the wound? Congealed blood? Something else?

The steam from the shower was starting to fog the mirror. He stripped off his shirt and pants, and climbed into the shower.

The water on his face, all over his skin, felt better than it ever had. He opened his mouth to the stream. Hot water gushed in. He swallowed mouthful after mouthful as thirst hit him like a hammer. He reached around the shower curtain and grabbed the glass that sat on the edge of the sink. Filling it with hot water from the shower, he drank, then filled and drank again.

He felt his elbow. There was no wound at all there now. Had he hallucinated it? He scrubbed his face hard with both hands.

He picked up the bar of plain white soap and sniffed it. He needed to wash, but he felt reluctant to use the soap, almost repelled by it. He lathered it anyway and rubbed it under his armpits.

He stifled a scream as his hands, underarms and sides began to burn as if he’d applied acid to them. He rinsed off the soap, but the damage was done. All down both sides and on each hand, thick red welts appeared.

Despite the pain, he felt better than he had since before last night’s attack. Maybe a shower was all he’d really needed. He turned off the water and reached for a towel.

After gingerly patting himself dry, he used the towel to wipe the steam off the mirror. He was still pale, but there was a pink, well-scrubbed look to his face. The welts were already starting to go down. He wrapped the towel around himself and headed back to the bedroom to find some clothes.

In the living room, he paused. The gurgling sounds of the aquarium filter seemed too loud. He realized he hadn’t fed the school in a couple of days. He felt sure that he could cross the thick brown carpet of the living room and drop some fish flakes into the tank without waking up Emma. He held the towel for extra insurance and stepped carefully across the room. After he fed them, he watched the fish, the four orange ones and the black one, as they ate.

He loved that black fish, with its googly eyes and shiny dark scales. It always seemed so mellow compared to its faster orange buddies. Its plumed tail floated behind it as it swam up to the top, took a piece of food, and then returned for more.

Emma’s voice came from the couch. “Alex? What are you doing?”

He looked down at his hand. The black fish lay curled in his palm, flexing its small, muscular body, its round mouth trying to suck oxygen from the air. The lid of the tank was lying on the floor by the balcony door, five feet away.

He knew without a doubt what he’d been about to do: put the fish in his mouth and swallow it. He was so hungry. Only the tiniest part of him felt sorry about it.

02 January 2011

Movies as Folk Art

Are you familiar with lubok? This Russian folk art form involves simple artwork and narratives taken from popular and classic literature, made up into poster-like art that you can hang on the wall, like this one from the late 18th century, "The Mice Are Burying the Cat."

Russian artist Andrey Kuznetsov used science fiction and fantasy films to create amazing lubok art. These are really delightful. I only wish I knew what the text said. Anybody?

Enjoy. More here.

01 January 2011

Aiming High, Shooting for the Middle: New Year's Writing Resolutions

I hope everyone's doing well. If you're like my cat Ben and already tired of playing with your Christmas toys, well, it's time to face the new year.

Ben is not amused

Since 2010 was the first year in which I set - and actually attempted to meet - serious writing goals, it's interesting for me to look back and see how I did.

Some might say not great. I met not a single goal. But what do you care? I mean, my whole point was to write more, read more, and learn more about writing well. And that I did.

The way I figure it, if I met my goals, then that would be a clear sign that I didn't set them high enough.

Here's the good: I wrote consistently over the course of the year (meaning not every day, not even every week, but most weeks). I didn't do like I usually do and end up trying to cram a year's worth of writing in while I moan and cry and miss Christmas and make everyone around me miserable, most especially myself.

I abandoned projects that I thought were precious and great at the beginning of 2010. This, I think, is a by-product of writing more and editing more and striving to get some stories out there. When you see giant improvements in what you're writing, it's easy to let go of stuff you thought was great six months ago.

I also learned that I still need vacations from creative writing, despite the fact that I love it. I took a couple of weeks in September, and a couple more over Christmas - much-needed breaks from writing, the computer, and life stuff. I'd like to plan to do that in 2011, with less guilt and more glee.

But anyway, here are the stats on my goals and how it all shook out - images squicked from my 2010 Goals page at the Stringing Words forums.

I'm proud to note that this raw word count does not include blog posts, online articles, documents I wrote for clients, or any writing that was not creative in nature. That 205k figure includes the 64,211 words of novel draft (my NaNo novel). It also includes 71,254 words from a non-fiction project. I'm on the downhill slope on both of these! There were a bunch of short stories in there, too. A small extra effort in 2011 should put me over the 225k mark, but this goal is low enough that I can afford to slack here and there. Tally ho!

I'm least happy with my story submissions track record. I was going strong(er) at the beginning of the year, but totally petered out in early September. I know why.

Partway through the year, I suddenly figured out how to be a lot more objective about my own work. This led to a "my God, it's full of errors" near spiritual experience, which in turn led to procrastination. I could see how I could make some of my short stories a whole heap of a lot better, but I also felt overwhelmed by how much work I had to do on them.

On the plus side, two of those submissions, "Voop" and "The Bell," saw publication.

More submissions in 2011! My current stable of submissible stories is not super huge, maybe five or six stories. But 20 just seems like a sad number. I'm aiming for 52 again.

Oh, Revenant Army. This was a book I drafted 90 percent of in late 2009, in a frenzy of gotta-get-stuff-written, just before my mood crashed out and I downspiraled into an existential crisis of sorts, fueled by the realization that I needed a career change. Yikes. But the book had amazing stuff in it (I think!), including Victor Frankenstein, sasquatch (anyone know the plural of sasquatch? Sasquatches? Sasquaii?), and reanimated creatures galore! I still want to work on it.

I'm going to rewrite it in 2011.

Cosy Sexy Vampire was the working name of my 2009 NaNo novel. I had a great time writing it, and I do think there was good stuff in there. Now that I'm looking at this, I'm recalling that a good portion of my 2010 word count went toward drafting new material for this book. (This makes more sense - I didn't think I wrote 70k worth of  short stories in 2010!) It looks like I had just about a complete draft, in terms of sheer volume of words, but the book was a mess, and the characters ended up in some nasty places that I didn't think were all that sympathetic.

Sometime in January / February, a writing coach dude told me that vampires aren't marketable. At the time, I was sore about it, but in retrospect, I realized that, along with the rest of the world, I'm pretty sickened by the state of the vampire sub-genre today. I decided to let this one go.

I recycled the best characters and themes from this book in my 2010 NaNo. Or, in the words of Chris Kelworth, I allowed my "chimera-like creature to pick at the dead bodies" of my former works.

(Why did this image turn out so tiny?)

Sometimes people ask me if I've ever used the work I did on my PhD thesis to write fiction. The Medlar Tree was my attempt to do that, but honestly, my fiction writing skills were pretty shaky in 2008, plus I'd been thinking for so long about how to turn my research - on syphilis, plague, and early theatre - into a novel, well, by the time I finally got around to writing it, it all felt like too much pressure. Like way too eagerly anticipated sex, the execution was ultimately messy and disappointing. I might rewrite it someday, preferably long after vampires are no longer so trendy. Strictly speaking, this wasn't a vampire narrative. Non-strictly speaking, it was.

It's shelved until I can figure out how to do it right.

I'm pretty close to finishing this, a non-fiction book project based on some spiritual stuff I've been working on for a while. I've got a chapter or two left to go. I anticipate a second draft and an introduction coming in 2011. Productivity!

Done, and done!  I'll be putting this on the list again this year.

I read more than 26 books this year (pinky swear!), but I got unexcited about updating my progress. I'm pretty sure I didn't make it to 52, though. Probably I hit somewhere closer to 35 or 40. Which is dismal, really. I don't know. I've read some great books this year. Do I really need to track my reading?

Eileen at Speak Coffee to Me, who suggested the 52 book year in the first place, has produced an amazing series of posts on her year in reading. I am in awe. I want to go to there. It's on the list for 2011.

Bwahahahaha. I hear it's a good idea to have a completed book manuscript before you do this.

At least now I know that I don't really know how long it's going to take me to scrub a novel manuscript into decent shape. I plan to learn that in 2011. I'm hoping in the name of all that's holy that it doesn't take as long, proportionally speaking, as it takes to edit and polish a short story, because those take me forever. I suspect it's probably even more complex than editing a short story. I'm not thinking too hard about that, though, lest I slip into the Slough of Despond.

2011 Writing Goals:
Raw word count: 225 000
Story submissions: 52
Books read: 52
Finish (30 000 new words), edit, polish Tree Talk 
Finish (36 000 new words), edit, polish The Gift (working title, NaNo 2010)
Rewrite Revenant Army
Start a new novel, NaNo 2011

Whether you're setting writing goals or planning to wing it, I wish all of you writers a wonderful and productive 2011 that's filled with magic, revelation and gleeful pissant mischief. Oh, and laser eyes. Who doesn't want those?

Demonic possession, happiness - what's the diff?