Wednesday, February 24, 2010

No Sparkles, Just Very Long Ears

A random comment made by a friend the other day brought to mind a book I hadn't thought of in ages, which was a shame because the more I thought on it, the more it occurred to me just how influential this book was in shaping my own writing. Which seems an odd thing to say, given that the subject of the book is a vampire rabbit.

Yes, you read that correctly. And those of you who knew you read that correctly are probably doing what I did the other day when the book came to mind, that is to say jumping up and down and squealing with delight while saying "Bunnicula!" way too loud so that the entire room turns and looks at you as though you've suddenly sprouted fuzzy ears and fangs yourself.

Okay, maybe that was just my experience.

For those of you who have not read it or heard of it - and I suspect there are many more of you in that category than in the squealing with delight one – the plot is simple. It's a children's book, one of those early chapter books that I think is too young to qualify as YA but older than picture books. The tale is told by the family dog, Harold, and there's a family cat, Chester (I think), and into this happy household comes a bunny. A white bunny with a peculiar black patch on it's back that looks a lot like a cape. A bunny who sleeps most of the day. Add to that the sudden appearance of vegetables drained white, and you have the makings of a vampire bunny.

Or so the cat believes. The dog is less convinced, and despite there being three books in the series, I don't think it's ever completely stated one way or another that Bunnicula is, in fact, a vampire bunny. (Unlike in the ABC Saturday morning cartoon movie which is where I first learned of Bunnicula. That ends with a very definitive answer to the question.) This does not stop the cat from attempting to remove the "evil" influence from the house.

As you might expect, there's a lot of humor in the book. The horror aspect is limited to the potential for zombie vegetables (expressly stated in the title of the third book, "The Celery Stalks at Midnight") and the general air of paranoia as expressed by the cat. I'm not sure why anyone would ever find the idea of a vampire bunny threatening, especially as all the victims seem to be vegetables, but that doesn't stop Chester from trying to "steak" the bunny through the heart with a side of beef.

The vegetables are put down with toothpicks, lest they, too, rise from the compost heap.

Now, what does something I read when I was back in the fifth grade, possibly earlier, have to do with what I write now? Well, as I said this was my first "horror" book. Most of the rest of what I read at the time was either fantasy or sci-fi, and it would be years before I picked up my first Stephen King, despite my peers reading him early on. (My first King was "The Stand" when it came out unabridged, but that's another entry.) Most of my attempts to write horror fall much more in line with the image of toothpicked vegetables than people having their body parts removed. I also seem to be more or less unable to write anything straight. Eventually, somewhere, somehow, a wisecrack remark will work it's way into my fiction.

In my life, to the best of my knowledge, I've only ever written one thing that actually creeped someone out. Everything else has been somewhat tongue in cheek, and not the zombie kind of tongue in cheek. I won't make the case that this was the only influence on the way I write, as there were other things. Nor will I say that much of what I write also has to do with where my own talents and authorial voice just naturally lend themselves. I cannot, for example, write Tolkien-esque fantasy. I tried, once. Once was enough.

It was, however, something that stuck with me, even if I didn't always consciously remember it. For that I am grateful, and I think my next trip to the library may have me wandering the children's section. I could do with a re-read of my favorite fuzzy vampire.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Snow Angels

There are some things you should just never outgrow. Enjoying yourself in the snow is one of them. Mind you, I am aware that as I get older the onset of winter isn't quite filled with all the joy it used to carry when I was a child. For starters, I have to drive in it now. I also have to contend with heating bills, shoveling the walk and the driveway, and other related chores that go a long way towards making me more likely to swear at those first flakes than to rush out and catch them on my tongue.

That said, there are certain things that go with the season that help me maintain some of the childhood fascination. There is of course Christmas, but as that is now long past and winter's not yet over - no matter what the groundhog says, it's always six more weeks at least – I have to look for joy elsewhere.

One of those is something I rediscovered only last year. Now, I've made at least one snow man every year for the past four years, ever since my little one was old enough to walk out into the snow. And while I've yet to achieve a Calvin and Hobbes level of sophistication and perfection in my snowmen, there's still something to be said for being able to stand back and admire your handiwork. If I don't put my back out trying to lift the middle section into place.

Snow angels, on the other hand, weren't something I hadn't attempted for probably decades. You reach a certain age and suddenly flopping around on your back in the snow doesn't seem like the cool and awesome idea it was when you were six. Probably right around the time wearing a hat in the winter seems to much of a trade-off between being cool and being warm.

For some reason though, maybe having to do with the transcendent levels of joy it seemed to bring my little one and her cousins, I gave it a go last year. After making sure the snow was properly white (we were on a farm, after all) I flopped back, waved my arms and legs, and stared up into the falling snow.

There was no choir of angels, no revelations from above, and I got snow on my glasses.... yet... there was something quietly Zen about the whole experience. I'm not saying it ranks up there with rock gardens and tea ceremonies, but it was calming and rather peaceful. (Until my daughter launched herself onto my midsection.)

I think it has as much to do with the perspective you get as it does the quieting effects of all that snow and garb. Having a hat pulled down over your ears drowns things out, and for a brief moment you're left with nothing but you're contemplation of the open sky - and a couple of trees - way up above you. On a clear day it almost feels like you could fall into it.

Like all such moments it's fleeting, and eventually you have to get up. I suppose I could just lie back in the snow and not make a snow angel at all, yet like the tea ceremony there is something inherent in the process that makes it an important part of the experience, not just the end results. So I'll flail my arms and legs, and try and get up without making a mess of the pattern, and then stand back and contemplate my snow angel.

Then hold onto that memory until the time comes to do it again.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Field Guide to Your Common Critiquers

In a discussion with a fellow writer, the merits of letting other people read your work came up in conversation. I don't recall there being betas (or alphas) when I wrote my first book, though there was no internet or online writer's forums either. The most you had was your local writer's group, if you had one, and of course any of your friends and family that you could foist your work on. I got really lucky in that I was able to work with someone to help improve what little craft I had at that age, but otherwise there were few places to go for that outside perspective that is, let's face it, rather useful when you're trying to evaluate your own work.

However, not all critiques are created equal, and it can be a daunting task for the novice trying to sort out all the different opinions they might get from varying people. So as a public service, I present the following guide. (Doing the "Attenborough voice" in your head while reading is optional.)


Critiquous Pollyannaish - This well-meaning species is often the least helpful, because no matter how bad the drivel you write is, these people are still going to tell you they think it's a wonderful story. Or idea. Or character. These are the cheerleaders, which it should be pointed out that even really bad teams have. Sometimes they will be right, of course, but all too often they tend to foster the continuing exploits of bad writers. Often because they themselves can't write their way out of a paper bag, and live in dread of someone forcing them to face the truth. Unwilling to do so with their own work, they gladly help others persist in their own states of delusion.

These are probably the people who thought a story about sparkly vampires that had no real plot was a good idea, so as much as it might be desirous to do so, their opinions can't always be discounted.

Critiquous Pretentious - This species is good to consult only if you're interested in writing something Literary. With a capital "L." And possibly italics. Otherwise anything you write will be seen as drivel, catering to the masses, hopelessly commercial, and lacking in any sort of real value. These are the people who keep insisting popular authors are just hacks, no matter how many awards those hacks win. Selling books doesn't count, unless you're on the New York Times Bestseller list, preferably in any category other than popular fiction. Often former English majors.

Critiquous Green-eyed Monstrous - This species can be difficult to spot, as they often masquerade as one of the other species on this list. They can be identified most often not by their actual critiques, but by the snide commentary they are often fond of offering up unasked for and free of charge. Such commentary may include remarks disparaging what you write, how you write, or even that you write at all. Usually stemming from the deep-seated and possibly sub-conscious jealousy that they themselves have no creative talent at all and are stuck in a dead-end career they absolutely hate whereas you are doing something you enjoy. Even if you're stuck in a dead-end career to pay the bills while you do it.

When they do read your work, they may offer damning praise along the lines of "That was much better than I would have expected."

This naturalist is not entirely convinced that c. pretentious is not, in fact, a subspecies of c. green eyed monstrous, if only because the arguments from that species so often center around the tenet that if it sells well and makes the author boatloads of cash, it obviously can't have any literary merit.

Critiquous Familial (also sometimes found alongside critiquous amicus and/or amorous) - Friends, family, lovers, they may all want to read your stories. Tread carefully around this species, as they can exhibit traits from all the other species, and even the most well-meaning members may not be of much help. Especial care should be taken with amicus and amorous that the end critique doesn't end the relationship with unwittingly harsh comments such as, "This was a great parody," when, in fact, it was not meant to be.

Critiquous Honestus - Often the hardest species to find, these are the ones that tell you, in no uncertain terms, the merits and pitfalls of your current work. Recognized most often by their willingness to explain their critiques and have you bounce ideas off of them in order to address the issues they find at fault. Considered the most valuable of the species because once you find one, if they tell you something's good it generally is. Somewhat perversely, they are often the species least likely to be believed by many struggling authors still dealing with nagging self-doubts.

Critiquous Professional - An elusive species, especially for the fledgling writer, and one that can wound even the most seasoned veteran without the proper approach. Often seen as a harbinger that the author has "made it" to a certain level - even if the end critique is somewhat scathing. One positive remark from this species can, if well-timed, make even the most denigrating comment from any of the other species fade into obscurity.


This is not meant to be a comprehensive guide, by any means, as there are numerous sub-species lurking out there in the vast literary wilds, but I hope it has provided some guidance for determining which species you're dealing with in your own habitat.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

When Tragic is Better

I'm normally all for a happy ending. This does not mean I necessarily want everything to work out for the "happy ever after." Given my preferred genres for writing - namely sci-fi and horror - I am all too aware that sometimes what you're left with is the "happiest possible ending." Let's face it, at the end of an apocalyptic film, it's still the end of the world. Mad Max does not get to settle down someplace with a wife and kids. The world still sucks. Sometimes that's all implied, especially in a horror film. Yeah, you've survived, but you've also watched several people get whacked. Usually in horrible fashion. So there's going to be a bit of mental trauma, I think.

But on the whole, especially with movies, I prefer not to have things end on too down a note. This is why I eschew a lot of foreign cinema. Everything I know about Chinese cinema can be summed up as follows:

  • The girl dies.
  • The boy dies.
  • The girl goes crazy.
  • The boy goes crazy.
  • The girl goes crazy and then dies.
  • The boy goes crazy and then dies.
  • They both go crazy and/or die.

Which, seeing how most of the movies I watched to determine that formula were either two hours or longer, seems a bit more of my life than I want to invest in being depressed. If I'm going to sit down and give up two or three hours of my life, I'd like it to end on a good note.

Which does not always me everyone walks away in the end. Sometimes the tragic ending is the better ending.

And fair warning, there are spoilers below.

Take 1408, for example, which is based on one of King's best short stories (in this humble reader's opinion, anyway). In the original story - this is the spoiler part, so consider yourself forewarned and stop here if you don't want to know - the ghost hunter protagonist does not make it out of the hotel room alive. I can't remember off the top of my head if we learn exactly how he dies, only that he is, in fact, claimed by the room.

In the film, he gets out. He "beats" the room, so to speak, and survives his ordeal, reconciles with the important people in his life, and everything goes on, with our hero in theory a better person. Which was fine, I didn't mind that, only there was an alternative ending, a tragic ending, in which he still "beats" the room only he doesn't get out. Instead he dies, but he takes the room with him.

Now, aside from giving Samuel L Jackson more screen time, which as a general rule I am always in favor of, I thought the tragic ending had more weight to it. Aside from reuniting our character with his dead daughter - as having her taken from him twice was a particularly cruel touch and the kind of thing that even if you survive it will truly mess with your head - it seemed more fitting with the overall tone of the movie.

(I suspect the ending was changed for much the same reason that I Am Legend and The Forgotten went with the weaker ending - it tested better. )

There are some other instances I could think of if I put my mind to it where, for whatever reason, the ending needs that little bit of tragic element to it to make it work. It's not the same thing as a tragedy where everyone dies, like Hamlet (and if that was a spoiler than you need to write a letter of apology to your high school English teacher), it's just tragic in one fashion or another. These are also often the more realistic endings, I think, the ones that more often make sense within the framework of the given story and are less likely to feel merely tacked on at the end.

Sometimes that happy ending just doesn't feel right.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Where's My Flashback?

They say during certain moments your life flashes before your eyes. There are presumably moments when you know or think you're going to die. It's a cliche at this point, one used and abused and occasionally handled with a deft touch and a hint of humor. (The current Burger King commercial with the chicken sandwich is not such an example. The one line that commented that, even in those last moments, "A.I. still felt too long" was such an example. Only wish I could remember where that came from.)

It's also completely untrue, at least in my own personal experience. Mostly what happens at those moments when things go completely sideways (literally, but I'll get to that) is that the adrenalin in your body shuts down everything but your focus on the moment and trying to get through it. Your brain, I suspect, does not want to be diverted from it's task of trying to save your ass just to take a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Afterwards you might have cause to reflect on your life and the choices that you've made, perhaps in that moment when you're waiting for the ambulance, or if you're more fortunate just counting your blessings that you've come through the whole thing intact. But during? Nope, not so far, not for me anyway.

I had cause to put this to the test the other day when I lost control of my car. This makes two winters in a row, and I suspect it's due as much to my being out of practice driving in the snow and ice as it does to local conditions. I am not looking for the hat trick next year, so I'll have to see what all can be done about that, but this time around was far less scary than the first time. This time it was just my little coupe, and even though it was on a bridge over an icy creek, the bridge was solid concrete and I never once considered the car was going over the edge. As it turned out I was supremely lucky, the air bags didn't go off, and the damage to my car, while not cheap, is relatively minor.

At no point did I flash back to that fourth grade play where I had to dress up like a leprechaun. That got played on local access over and over and over again, and earned me an unfortunate nickname from one of my friend's parents which I have as yet to live down. You'd think that would have made a sufficient impression to flash by at least once.

All I was thinking was first, trying to steer my way out of it, and then second, when it became obvious that wasn't going to happen, going with the flow. I might have been praying, but if so it wasn't conscious. There is a second trope of hyper-awareness during events like this, and that one I will confirm. I remember every second of it vividly.

As I do for the accident last year, which in terms of just how badly it frightened me beat this week's accident hands down. Last year was in an SUV that I was unused to driving, and I ended up off the road with snow coming up and over the hood. That one scared me, and remains the longest ten seconds of my life. I doubt it was actually ten seconds, it was honestly more like a couple of seconds between the time I felt the back end go and when we plowed sideways into the snowbank on the far side of the road. But it'll always be ten seconds because that's the most my brain is willing to reduce it to. I suspect if it was up to my subjective experiences, the whole ordeal took minutes.

And again, in that space, there was no life flashing before my eyes. Just a whole lot of adrenalin that took me nearly an hour to fully come down from. After which I went to church, which is where I had been headed in the first place. I missed most of it, but that didn't really matter.

Now, perhaps, neither one of these was serious enough to qualify for having my life flash before my eyes. I wasn't worried about dying this week on the bridge. A year ago... that's another story. I didn't have time to think about it during the actual event, which I suspect might be key to this. If I was skydiving and my chute failed, and I had a minute or two to ponder such things, then perhaps my brain would conjure up images from my life. Hopefully not that fourth grade play, though.

I suspect, however, that it is nothing more than a convenient literary device which does not apply to the real world. Like being blown back by the force of being shot, or sound in space. Things that make for good fiction, if not for real life.

All things being equal, however, I'd just as soon not put it to the test again.

Monday, February 15, 2010


Just a quick warning: this post is on a topic that, in my experience, many of you out there find distasteful. You've been warned. Those of you who don't mind housework, read on.

I was cleaning house this morning. Just one of those things that had gotten away from me. I'd been staring at the dust on the television, the little bits of paper or whatever on the carpet, and meaning to get it done. For whatever reasons, I hadn't, and then this morning after breakfast I just went and got out the vacuum. When that was done, I grabbed the dust rag and polish. Half an hour later, I had a clean house.

Okay, I had a clean first floor, more or less.

While it's not like the place was a sty or anything, or even my sister's room, it certainly looked a lot better having been cleaned. It's funny how the little things can add up, and pretty soon you forget it can look a lot better than it does. Or maybe it's just the contrast between the before and after. I happen to be someone who likes things neat, even if the state of my desk sometimes gets away from me and makes it seem otherwise. (Speaking of which, as I look around, I see a project for this afternoon or perhaps tomorrow.)

It's also something where if you keep at it, doing a little bit each day, it seems less daunting than when you let it go for a while. Which is sort of like writing. The longer you sit and stare at the blank screen, sometimes the harder it becomes to put words down on it. On the other hand, if you manage to get in a little each day, it adds up, and pretty soon it's going smoothly and you're no longer faced with the overwhelming horror of the blank page. At least until you let it go again.

They say you should write a little each day. It's one of the reasons I keep this blog (along with another that's been sadly neglected). I have a couple of projects that are ongoing, and numerous ideas in my head. There's no reason, really, why I can't sit down and get at least something out each day. Just as there's no reason not to spare the thirty minutes or so it takes each week, at most, to get things clean. (Maybe an hour if I really get going and clean everything all at once.) No good reason at least.

I'm tempted to think sometimes that I ought to be able to channel my slightly obsessive nature more effectively than I do. Having a house that's less than neat bothers me, so too does having an empty page. But all too often it's too easy to walk past the vacuum or the keyboard and get sidetracked elsewhere. Then it starts piling up, and before I know it what was once a simple task now seems monumental.

Then I tackle that task, and realize it wasn't really so monumental after all. It just needed to be done.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Messing With the Classics: Musical Edition

Every time someone announces they are "updating" a beloved classic, I tend to cringe. Sometimes these go well, but more often than not you're left with something like "Kill Mo' Mock: Boo Radley in the Hood." (And if you've never read Bloom County, that reference may well be lost on you until the day comes when I shall explain. Which is not today.) This happens most often with film or literature, but the music world is not immune. The results are, sadly, about the same.

In pop music this is known as "the cover," a term which I, being non-musical myself, have often failed to grasp the nuances of. Sometimes it seems as if a cover is simply the same old song being sung by someone new. This can range from bland and uninspired to changing the way you interpret the song, even if the vocals and the music stay the same. In the hands of anyone else, "I've got you under my skin" doesn't have quite the same resonance as when Sammy Davis Jr sings it. In my mind that has to do with things outside of the song which lend themselves to different interpretations.

Sometimes those wander far afield. The stylizations of the national anthem (for which I blame Whitney) are, technically, not covers. I suppose because they aren't made for commercial distributions. I do however feel, each and every time some current pop sensation feels the need to belt and warble their way through the "Star Spangled Banner," that they are most definitely guilty of messing with a classic. And messing it up.

William Shatner singing "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" is in a class all by itself.

On the other hand, unlike in movies and books, in the music world it seems to me that the true classics are often, for the most part, sacrosanct. Sure, a composer might alter an arrangement here or there, or arrange a piece for instruments different than the composer intended, but you don't usually get the kind of "reinventing" that so often afflicts literary and film classics. There just isn't really much you can do to the "1812 Overture." Cannons are cannons, after all. Same with "Ode to Joy." (Having Beaker from the Muppets sing Beethoven does not fall in quite the same category. I doubt that's meant to be taken seriously on a musical level. Nor am I making that up.)

So it was with some trepidation, mixed in part with curiosity, that I listened to an album that put a modern, semi-electronica spin on Beethoven. It was, for the most part, a good listen. I shelved it - metaphorically speaking - in with the rest of my classics and will listen to the album again. It wasn't groundbreaking by any means, but it was respectful of the source and entertaining. The only tarnished spot for me was when the composer took on the 5th.

Now, I shall insert a caveat by saying of all of Beethoven's works, the 5th is the one that least impresses me. In part this is just the musical stylings of it, but it is also due to the fact that, of all of Beethoven's pieces, this is the one that has been most often abused and maligned. It was even once pressed into service for a series of answering machines messages. It is therefore forever associated in my head, not with the original the way it was intended, but all the "reimaginings" or "revisitings" or "updatings" or just plain "it was in the public domain and free so we took it and used it" recordings that have been perpetuated in Beethoven's name.

Which is the risk with doing this to any piece of classic work. Should the newer piece be sufficiently bad enough, no one remembers the power of the original. Instead you get the knockoffs. I think this may explain the treatment of the national anthem by almost every celebrity who has sung it since Whitney. They've forgotten the original, and only remember Whitney. In film I think you can thank Kenneth Branagh for bringing Shakespeare to new audiences, but I for one hold Frankenstein against him. The maligned monster hasn't had a decent big-screen or literary debut since. (More on that some other time.)

Does this mean the classics should never be open to interpretation? Probably not, as then you'd have to include pieces which were re-written for the piano or some other instrument, and some occasional tweaking can keep things fresh. But as for the rest, well....

I say we keep those cannons handy.