It’s been many years since I wrote poetry, but last night a couple presented themselves to me while I was watching, of all things, The Walking Dead–which probably accounts for their, shall we say, unsentimental nature.


If I had read the runes
I might have known the taste of blood like iron
when the longboats pierced the mist
and kissed the pebbled shore far from home;
and when I went to glory I’d have
filled my mouth with sweet, sweet ale
from the horn of plenty and feasted my fill
with all my kin beneath Odin’s laughing gaze.
But I drew letters on the page from pictures
that dreams gifted to my head, and
in the deep quiet I heard only
the voice of God calling my name.
Until the silence shattered.
His eyes, dragon blue, considered me from the
point of his sword, and when he smiled
he was like the skull he took home with him,
back to the mountains
which frowned upon his straw-haired children
and the woman who cradled him close
after the sun disappeared.


You see me and I you
in a mirror that brings
miles within an inch
of our heartbeats.
I cannot bear it.
I raise the gun
and fire.

“The best lack all conviction…”

Some of our clearest-seeing visionaries have been poets.  I love Yeats for his mysticism and his lyric Irish soul.  I know of no one like him today.

The Last of Sheila

One of the best and most overlooked movies of the `70s, The Last of Sheila (1973) also is among the cleverest mysteries ever written — with good reason, since the screenwriters were Anthony Perkins (yes, that Anthony Perkins) and Stephen Sondheim.  Despite the fact that it starred James Mason, Raquel Welch, James Coburn, Richard Benjamin, and Dyan Cannon, all major box office draws at the time, with Herbert Ross (Footloose, Steel Magnolias, and a lot of others) as director, it didn’t make much of a splash with the public.

I love it, both for its writing and its acting.  The script is replete with snarky witticisms, Hollywood references, and genuinely unanticipated twists and turns, and, as one character tells the others, you can figure out the mystery’s solution “if you’re smart enough.”  That’s what this movie is: a thinking person’s murder mystery.

Here’s the story (not a logline but a teaser summary):

A movie producer whose wife was killed a year earlier in a hit-and-run incident arranges for a some of his frenemies to join him for a week of game-playing (similar to a scavenger hunt) on his yacht off the French Riviera.  Among them are an agent who ratted out her friends and colleagues to HUAC in the `50s; a pedophile director; a vavavoom movie star and her “manager” husband; and a struggling screenwriter (is there any other kind?) and his mousy but wealthy wife.  Things go swimmingly enough until one of the characters is murdered.  And that’s when things get really interesting.

Here’s the scene about ten minutes in where the producer (James Coburn) explains the game’s rules to the others:

This movie blew me away when it was released, and I couldn’t understand why more people didn’t go to see it.  I also fail to comprehend why it took so long for it to show up on DVD; as of this writing, it’s still not on BluRay.

The Hardest Thing About Writing…

So.  After months, or even years, spent in daily/nightly toil on your book or screenplay, you’ve gotten it all polished and spiffy and the best it possibly can be. Perhaps you’ve spent many sleepless nights writing and rewriting it, sweating every word and switching passages or scenes around to make it all come together, and now you’ve done it.  You’ve finished the damn thing.

Now what?

Well, maybe you want to try to get it published, or made into a movie.  You want some kind of representation by way of an agent or a manager. Or perhaps you want to bypass those guys altogether and go straight for indie publishing, or pitching your concept to a producer, or raising funds to make the film yourself.  No matter which path you choose, you’re going to have to market yourself in the end.  And that’s the hard part. 

Is it because that’s a particularly difficult process?  Nope.  Or perhaps because agents, publishers, producers and the like are ogres just waiting to stomp on your dreams?  Naw, most of them are nice, albeit overworked folks.   No, the Sisyphus-like ordeal of finding your way to success is due primarily to that very thing that gives you a writer’s disposition in the first place: your introversion.

That’s the paradox.  Something none of us artsy-fartsy folks can escape because it’s essential to our own natures.  All writers of fiction and/or screenplays are imaginative, inward-looking folks, which means of course that we’re much more comfortable exploring the contents of our own heads than we are schmoozing at cocktail parties, lobbying the pow’rs-that-be for attention and favors, or drafting many versions of the same letter in order to find that one perfect pitch, like a verbal dog whistle, that only an agent or producer can hear.   Heck, I’d rather spend a couple of years writing a 400-page novel than sending out the necessary query letters in a quest for representation.

But you know what?  I’ve come to realize, fairly recently at that, that not only is a willingness to put myself “out there” a necessary component of getting my stuff read, it also represents a personal challenge for me to overcome my innate shyness and reticence in pursuit of something that I believe is worthwhile. 

So although I face that part of the process with sweaty palms and teeth clenched in anticipation of a slammed door hitting my nose, it’s something I have to do.  As a motivator, I reward myself with the thought that after that’s done and I’ve either hit a dead end or taken that next step toward success, I get to re-experience the joy of writing something else. 

And after I finish it?  Well, I try not to focus on that.

Fiction, Literary Criticism, and the Writing Thereof

A couple of days ago I had a conversation with a literature professor about writing in which he maintained that literary criticism is every bit as “creative” as the crafting of fiction.   I understood his point.   To take a text and tease meaning from it that perhaps no one else has gleaned, and then shape a well-conceived argument supported by threads of evidence not only from the text itself but also from related works, does require a certain talent for inventive thought.   Having written literary criticism myself (though it’s been many years since I did so), I understand first-hand the almost mathematical deductive aptitude and gift for intellectual organization required for that kind of writing.  There’s no question in my mind that the writing of literary criticism is a creative act.

However. . .

If there’s any kind of writing that falls into the category of undiluted creativity, i.e. the making of something from nothing but the writer’s inner landscape and imagination, fiction gets my vote.

Here’s why:  Essay writing, criticism, and non-fiction works all derive from something that already exists; an idea, ideology, or socio-cultural trope, a piece of art, literature or music.  Something must have been put in place before the essayist, critic or non-fiction writer can comment upon it.  That kind of writing therefore is dependent upon historical forces or inspired works that came before it, the latter often though not always the handiwork of the creative writer.  However much ingenuity necessarily goes into fashioning non-fiction, criticism or otherwise, it is not purely creative.  That is the realm of the craftsman and of the artist.

Literary criticism and other non-fiction writing also differ from fiction writing in the ways in which the writers structure their creative ideas.  Because their foundational purpose is to persuade the reader to a point-of-view, to see a work of fiction or a slice of the world through a particular lens, criticism must be intellectually precise and detailed in every respect, from conception to execution.  Its appeal, however complex the edifice, is always to the audience’s reason.  If his points are to convince, the critic has to look logically at his subject from every possible angle, anticipate arguments and counter-arguments and address them accordingly.  Well-executed works of expository writing often are breathtaking in their formulation and implementation.

Fiction writers execute their craft differently.  Logic is important here, too, but good fiction can make the reader feel in the same way that all art does, within both the heart and the soul of the reader.   The best fiction not only tells a story but engages the reader below the level of conscious thought so that she picks up the writer’s underlying meaning without her necessarily being aware of it in an intellectual sense.

The reader of a novel or short story must be able to identify implicitly with the protagonist’s humanity.  By definition then, the appeal is not only to the audience’s reason — the story and the characters who inhabit it must make sense within context —  but to their emotions.  That is accomplished both by what the author writes and perhaps more importantly what he does not write, in the spaces between the words where the deepest meaning often is found.  It is within those spaces, where the human mind processes information and comprehends subliminally, that art functions in ways which transcend reason.   Fiction writers therefore have to create simultaneously on more than one level, both explicitly with regards to story and within those hidden, empty spaces between the words.  And before they even set pen to paper, they must be able to think in two (or more) dimensions at the same time; in the realm of day and of night, of waking consciousness and of dreamtime. 

Fiction is the work of the shaman as well as the craftsman, and there’s no creativity more pristine than magic.

Painting With Words

Many years ago when I was a university undergraduate, one of my roommates happened to be an art student.  Living in an apartment littered with paintbrushes, canvasses and other paraphenalia gave me an up-close appreciation of how an artist actually works, that was miles apart from the detached overview of humanity’s long progression through the visual arts that I learned from my art history classes.

One important, foundational idea that I soon recognized as relevant to my creative writing, was that not all of an artist’s subjects require the same approach and tools, but are dependent upon what meaning she is trying to communicate.   Sometimes she uses oils, sometimes acrylics or chalk or charcoal.   A complex subject might require a lot of detail and color, while something simple can be depicted with a few judiciously applied strokes.   The artist’s creative vision, what he intends to convey to the viewer, and how effectively that is achieved, are subject to the style he uses and the tools he implements.

Fiction is like that, too.  Just as all stories are different — some are innately novels, others short stories or novellas, still others screenplays — their successful executions require techniques specifically tailored to their uniquely individual natures.

For example, my novel about Joan of Arc, An Army of Angels, is a vast, sweeping epic filled with color and elaborate detail, a real cast-of-thousands historical novel on the scale of a vintage Cecil B. deMille movie.  The subject required nothing less, so that was the approach I took.  On the other hand, V-Squad, a character-driven vampire adventure set during World War II, is lighter in tone, evocative rather than painstakingly detailed, and much, much shorter.  Given its setting in the recent past and the relative familiarity of that time to the contemporary reader, it wasn’t necessary for me to apply a lot of text toward immersing my audience in that world. 

So, using the visual arts analogy, if An Army of Angels is comparable in size and tone to one of those busy, wall-sized 19th century paintings that you might find in the Louvre or Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art — say, something like this —V-Squad‘s narrative is simpler, more stylized, and employs cleaner lines, like this.

As a novelist, I always try to stretch myself and write something unlike anything I’ve attempted before.  Currently in front of me are six short stories related to and featuring characters from V-Squad.  Their common source notwithstanding, every one is different from both the novel and each other. 

The story I’ve been working on for about four months now consists of a spare narrative that suggests physical context without a reliance on extended description.  There’s very little internal monologue on the part of the protagonist; his psyche and emotional reactions to the world around him are reflected via his experiences and interactions with others, and not the other way around.  If this were visual art, it would be done in charcoal using simple line drawings.

Each of the other stories is equally unique and written according to its individual character.  One is broad farce; another, somber and emotionally moving; yet another, erotic.  And for the first time (which is saying something, given that I’ve been writing on and off for almost fifty years), I’m trying my hand at an out-and-out horror story reminiscent of a tale from The Twilight Zone

As I have found over time, every story worth telling has its own color, tone, and style.  So when I dip into my metaphorical toolbox, I always look forward to learning something new about the writer’s craft.  For me, there’s nothing more rewarding than painting with words.

Bulwer-Lytton Contest 2011

For fans of really bad writing:  Every year since 1982, the faculty of the Department of English at San Jose State University in California have sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, you might recall, was the author of the 1830 novel Paul Clifford, which gave the world the famous (or infamous) opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night…”

Anyway, the contest challenges writers to come up with a deliberately inept opening sentence of a phony novel in the style of Paul Clifford. The best, i.e. most effective, piece of bad writing earns immortality on the BLFC’s web site. Here are the “winners” and runners-up for 2011.

Blank Spaces Between the Words

Every time I sit down to work on my fiction, I learn something about the craft of writing.  Some years back, a pleasing thought occurred to me in one of those lightbulb-in-the-head moments: that there are blank spaces between the words in prose fiction, gaps that the human mind automatically rushes to fill.  Recently a friend complimented me for something I’d written by exclaiming, “You described it so well that I felt that I was actually there!”  That made me smile, because my more recent writing tends to be somewhat lean.  I pointed out that there really was very little description in what she’d read, but that her mind had seized upon key words to create the images that were not in fact in the text.  Those images that lay in the blank spaces between the words.

Indie Publishing

Amanda Hocking’s amazing success story continues to inspire all of us who write as independents.  As everyone who keeps up with these things knows, she has just signed a multimillion dollar deal with my old publisher, St. Martin’s Press.  Lucky young woman, some might think.  But it wasn’t luck, at least not entirely.  She got there through a combination of raw talent, persistence, and hard work.  As she admits on her blog, pursuing her dream wasn’t easy and in fact promoting her work became a full-time job in itself.

I’m finding that out from my own very recent experience.  How do you promote a book when you work a regular, 40-hours-a-week job?  Well, you blog, and tweet, and interact on Facebook, at least insofar as you have time.  But when do you actually, you know . . . write?  That’s the frustration I’m experiencing right now.  I have five short stories that I need to complete and a sequel to V-Squad to outline and at some point in time put on the page.  There are only so many hours in the day in which to do it all.  Something has to fall by the wayside; something won’t get done.

A Good Day to Write

I have the rest of the week off from my regular job so I’m working on my short stories today, four in all, thematically linked to one another and to my new e-novel, V-Squad, each set in a different time period and location.  This collection gives me a chance to explore a common theme and write about history (my favorite subject) at the same time.  So I’m really excited about having the chance to work on them today.

It’s a little slow-going, though.  I’ve been sweating over the first paragraph of one story for the past month, and still can’t seem to get it right.  Knowing what I want to say is one thing, but finding the perfect words to bring that about is a different matter.  It’s not enough to simply describe the scene visually; the real challenge is to evoke the emotional landscape of the characters in such a way that it immediately resonates within the reader.  And that’s where I’m feeling stuck.  Maybe writing about it here will help.

Writers certainly know what I’m talking about.  Sometimes the words just flow effortlessly from one’s brain to the keyboard; and in fact there are occasions when the writer can barely keep up with that inner voice as it sprints headlong in its haste to communicate.  Those times are rare, however, at least they are for me.

Most of the time I — and I suspect that this is true for the majority of writers everywhere — have to labor over every word in my quest to find the ideal term that will describe what’s in my head and my imagination.  So I write, then rewrite, and rewrite some more, and change things around, then disliking what that has wrought, start all over again.  That’s where I am today.

Meanwhile, there’s a gentle rain falling just outside my window, and I can hear the swollen creek rushing through my backyard a little faster than it normally does.  The cool air smells fresh and sweet, and there’s that subtle sense that spring is definitely on its way.  It’s a good day to write.

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