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Horror Best of the Best: Battle Royale Heat 2

I love horror movies. I make no secret of that fact. Finding good horror–the hidden gems, the sublime, the over-the-top–is a quiet obsession for me. I know I’m not alone. So… with Halloween upon us, I’ve decided to have a little fun.

What I’ve done here is taken about 500+ horror movies and broken them down into heats of about 50 or so. The object: vote for your 10 favorites in each heat. The movies are in no particular order and are not broken down by category or any such thing. I’ve tried to be as inclusive as possible, but alas, 500 is not as much as one might think. So if a favorite of yours wasn’t included, let me know and I’ll try to squeeze it in next year. There may also be redundancies and errors. We’ll just deal with these as they come up. I’m working at a pretty fast clip here and I’m far from perfect.

In any case, I’ll keep these open until midnight Oct. 29, at which point I’ll take the top ten from each heat and put them into a final grouping of 100 from which we’ll derive the winner.

Keep in mind, this is unscientific as hell and in no way validates or invalidates the quality of any one movie or your taste in horror cinema. It’s just a way to waste a little time and have a little fun. So vote away and enjoy!

Horror Best of the Best: Battle Royale Heat 1

I love horror movies. I make no secret of that fact. Finding good horror–the hidden gems, the sublime, the over-the-top–is a quiet obsession for me. I know I’m not alone. So… with Halloween upon us, I’ve decided to have a little fun.

What I’ve done here is taken about 500+ horror movies and broken them down into heats of about 50 or so. The object: vote for your 10 favorites in each heat. The movies are in no particular order and are not broken down by category or any such thing. I’ve tried to be as inclusive as possible, but alas, 500 is not as much as one might think. So if a favorite of yours wasn’t included, let me know and I’ll try to squeeze it in next year. There may also be redundancies and errors. We’ll just deal with these as they come up. I’m working at a pretty fast clip here and I’m far from perfect.

In any case, I’ll keep these open until midnight Oct. 29, at which point I’ll take the top ten from each heat and put them into a final grouping of 100 from which we’ll derive the winner.

Keep in mind, this is unscientific as hell and in no way validates or invalidates the quality of any one movie or your taste in horror cinema. It’s just a way to waste a little time and have a little fun. So vote away and enjoy!

You Never Know

A long while back, some twenty years ago,I was scrounging to get published for the first time. This was before we had the internets machine. I was getting treated for depression and I happened to mention my writerly ambitions to my doctor, so he quick jotted this down for me. Turns out his colleague worked with a literary magazine called Mediphors. I did submit some stuff, but it wasn’t what they were looking for and that was that. I believe the magazine has long since gone under. But lesson learned. You never know when an opportunity to publish might arise.

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Come Out and Play

Come Out and Play

Writer’s block, in my experience, is really nothing more than a failure to engage with your work. Not making an effort to put something down on paper. To show up for work. A giving-in to fear and insecurity and feelings of worthlessness and the temptations of distraction.

Since I’m as human as anyone and a depressive to boot, I’ve struggled mightily the past few years with this stuff. I’m constantly seeking to engage and re-engage with my work. Sometimes it’s a chore (albeit a worthwhile one).

So the other day, I came across this folder full of old writing and artwork from high school and college. A lot of them were poems like this one.

It’s young and undisciplined (as Dr. Fincke is kindly pointing out in the margins), full of things I probably wouldn’t do now. But reading it, I can also recall how much FUN I had playing with language and finding new ways to describe things. Poetry, when I was 19, was my time to PLAY with words.

So now, when things begin to get gummed up, I’ve started scribbling lines like this, seeking linkages and images I might not have if I’d only just sat there pondering my sticking point. And it really works. By keeping busy and re-engaging my sense of play I’ve been managing to unstick myself in short order.

What do you think? What do you do to unstick yourself?

Cinematic Writing–Further Notes on a Previous Post

A few days ago, I wrote a brief analysis of a short passage from Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree. Specifically, how McCarthy uses language to effectively stop time for the reader and how he uses that temporal slowdown to guide the reader holistically through a character’s turn of mind. I’d like to return to that passage, if I may.

It’s hard to be certain as to whether the words in any of those final lines are Suttree’s.  But I tend to believe they are not.  Not directly.  Rather, they appear largely to be a depiction of Suttree’s dissolute awareness of the natural life surrounding him given form by the author himself.  Or, put another way, the character’s state of mind is conveyed through images outside of his direct observation.  The images are for us, the readers, to guide us, so that we can recreate for ourselves Suttree’s ‘mazy Sunday’.

     We can find a parallel example of this sort of spliced and indirect imagery in Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 film Walkabout.  The film details the travails of a young upper class teenage girl and her younger brother who are lost in the Australian outback, and the aborigine boy who guides them back to civilization.  Throughout the movie, Roeg frequently cuts away to scenes and images that lie outside the direct narrative. 

In one scene, the aborigine boy kills and butchers a kangaroo for the three of them to eat.  Unused to hunger and thirst to the degree they are experiencing it, the girl and her brother look on non-judgmentally as he hacks it apart. It’s a messy and savage affair. Interspersed throughout are quick cutaway shots of a modern butcher shop, with men slicing clean red cuts of meat away from anonymous bone.

     Those quick shots of the modern butcher shop aren’t direct depictions of things the boy and girl have seen.  They are there for us, the viewers.  Not as some heavy-handed emphasis on theme, but as a window into a change of awareness happening within the minds of the two upper class kids.  What may have formerly disgusted them, they are now grateful for.  Our own disgust is ameliorated somewhat by the realization brought home by the side-by-side images of the butcher shop and aborigine hacking at the kangaroo:  that men have butchered for eons, that we have only sanitized and distanced the act.  That we are able to be disgusted because in civilized society we can afford to be.

The point is that there are a lot of moments in fiction where a character is experiencing something psychologically profound, but which cannot be articulated succinctly. The next time you encounter such a situation, take the opportunity to convey that state of mind through outside images as in these two examples rather than lapse into summary exposition or interior monologues.

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From Me to You

From Me to You

At my very last M.F.A. residency, poet William Heyen passed out these little laminated index card poems to everyone during the class he hosted. The point he was making, I believe (and I may be entirely incorrect in my remembering), was that sharing was a mercenary act of publication. In any case, I’ve had this on my desk for a while now and I’m not one to keep a poem to myself.

If you can’t read the words, I’ll type out the text here:

EVENSONG

Now it is too late not
to kiss goodbye

to all I might have been + done
if only

I’d not kept faith with you
+ you with me

all my years, my soul,
my poetry.

Time Stand Still

He crossed the cabin and stretched himself out on the cot.  Closing his eyes.  A faint breeze from the window stirring his hair.  The shantyboat trembled slightly in the river and one of the steel drums beneath the floor expanded with a melancholy bong.  Eyes resting.  This hushed and mazy Sunday.  The heart beneath the breastbone pumpingThe blood on its appointed rounds.  Life in small places, narrow crannies.  In the leaves, the toad’s pulse.  The delicate cellular warfare in a waterdrop.

In this passage from Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, the title character rests on his houseboat and his mind, in a moment, will drift back toward the day of his grandfather’s death.  Two things are happening in the meantime.  The first is that Suttree’s perception of time appears to slow down.  The second: his awareness of nature and the cycle of life expands within these lengthened instants.

It would be a simple to matter to merely state that Time seemed to slow down and get on with it. In fact, this is what a lot of authors do.  But McCarthy wants to show us what that state of mind looks and feels like without directly stating what is happening.  And he does this in two ways. The first  is through language, specifically through verbs and sentence fragments.  Note all of the passive verbs and action-less fragments highlighted in bold.  What these do is occlude the action and stack details one atop another so that we have the impression of many things happening simultaneously.

The second is the direction in which the details in the closing lines lead us: from the heart pumping within Suttree himself, to the life (the vermin and insects) that resides hidden on the houseboat, and finally out into the trees and  the water droplets collected on the leaves.  Inward to outward.  From there, McCarthy is freed to follow these carefully chosen details all the way back around to Suttree’s flashback.

As writers, we receive a lot of advice telling us to avoid things like passive verbs, gerunds, and fragments. But as McCarthy shows us here, the great writers employ every tool in the box to create specific effects.

Readings on Writing–Friendly Suggestions in the Interim

It’s been about ten days since my last post, for which I do apologize. You see, I have a baby girl on the way and part of  preparing for her entrance into our household involves dismantling my old office space and moving it into the bedroom. Which means most of my books and notes are currently boxed up and the PC is dismantled. So making a passable entry has been well nigh impossible.

I expect it to be another week yet before I’m fully uncrated. So in the meantime, I thought I’d list some of the more insightful craft and criticism books/essays I’ve read in the off-chance you might find something new and worthwhile and had an inkling to explore on your own. (Note: This isn’t all that I’ve read, by any means. Nor am I listing any of the more ‘theoretical’ and generally high-end  academic criticism. Most of the stuff here is quite approachable at the very least by the inquisitive undergrad and lay reader. And of course, if there’s something you’d like to suggest, post a recommendation in the comments.)

BOOKS

  • On WritingStephen King: Practical and worthwhile advice on writing as a career and as a craft. Better than most of his novels.
  • The Art of Fiction–David Lodge: Essays on various aspects of craft using various examples drawn from well-known and established authors. A bit stuffy, but worthwhile.
  • How Fiction Works–James Wood: Like Gardner, Wood is a bit stiff and precriptivist, but this one is worth a look just for the section on free indirect style.
  • American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman–F. O. Matthiessen: Matthiessen breaks down the major works of Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman and traces their influences and influence as well as their successes and weaknesses as writers. Great companion book to read side-by-side with their masterpieces.
  • Reading Like a Writer–Francine Prose:  Terrific for learning how to draw technique from a text.
  • Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft–Janet Burroway:  Burroway discusses creative non-fiction, poetry, fiction, and drama and the core concepts common to all of them.
  • The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft For Young Writers–John Gardner:  Gardner is an incorrigible prescriptivist with a severe distaste for experimental fiction. But there are more than a few gems here.

ESSAYS

And of course, if you’re a writer or want to be, there’s no better way learn than by reading.

Read the good stuff. Read critically. Read to expand your boundaries. Read often.

My Luck Seven Post

Here are the rules if you’re not familiar with it:

Go to page 7 or 77 in your current manuscript

  • · Go to line 7
  • · Post on your blog the next 7 lines, or sentences, as they are – no cheating
  • · Tag 7 other authors to do the same

Somnambulant shuffle through dark and gnarled hallways.  Restlessness scuttered through Hart like ants under the skin; synapse to neuron to limb.  Chill in the air.  The cold pall of old grief.  Familiar friend.

The image of Molly’s face had interrupted his sleep, floating out of the darkness each time he closed his eyes.If he waited long enough her face receded and through it emerged Rigelle’s like a shell revealed by a receding tidal pool.

Worrying About the Right Things

Where were we? So last week we talked about not worrying about plot and I left off with that little quote from Fizgerald: “Action is character.”

Now upon reading that initially, one might immediately jump to the conclusion: If Action=Character & Action=Plot then Character=Plot. To which I say, Hold thy breeches!

Didn’t I say we weren’t going to worry about plots here? So stop it with this ‘plot’ stuff! Modernists and Postmodernists have been flattening, fracturing, elipsizing and generally working around the nuisance of plot for generations now. Even dear old Laurence Sterne had a go at it with Tristram Shandy. So, for real this time, no more plots!

What I am getting at, firstly, is that what tends to really interest readers isn’t all the stuff that’s happening in your story, but to whom it’s happening or who it’s happening because of or to whom nothing is happening, etc… This likely seems elementary. But I’ll put forward that an awful lot of writers think of a setting and a situation and what ought to happen before they ever think of character. This is why, no matter how much they outline, their stories just seem to wander off-target of their own accord. While frustrating, this is not necessarily a bad thing. But more on that later.

Secondly, once you’ve internalized this notion, think of the implications of Fitzgerald’s little bon mot: Action is character. These are the actors of our little narrative, after all. The externalizers. The constructs that allow the abstract to be made dramatically concrete. It is fine to have them think and muse. But it’s how their worldview is externalized that really matters. It’s what they say and what they do that makes them compelling and therefore it’s what they say and do that makes your story compelling.

In The Silence of the Lambs, for example, we are told repeatedly about the evil of Hannibal Lecter. “A monster,” Dr. Chilton calls him. A pure sociopath. We are given graphic descriptions of the things he’s done. Conversely, Clarice Starling is introduced as smart, but green in the field. And then we get this little passage:

Starling knew Lecter was watching her from the darkness. Two minutes passed. Her legs and back ached from her struggle with the garage door, and her clothes were damp. She sat on her coat on the floor, well back from the bars, her feet tucked under her, and lifted her wet, bedraggled hair over her collar to get it off her neck.

Behind her on the TV screen, an evangelist waved his arms.

“Dr. Lecter, we both know what this is. They think you’ll talk to me.”

Silence. Down the hall, someone whistled “Over the Sea to Skye.”

After five minutes, she said, “It was strange going in there. Sometime I’d like to talk to you about it.”

Starling jumped when the food carrier rolled of Lecter’s cell. There was a clean, folded towel in the tray. She hadn’t heard him move.

There is a lot of information about character here almost exclusively via external action and detail. We get a clear sense of Starling’s candor and her stubborn determination. We also see that she is beginning to understand how to get Lecter to respond when she shifts from an ‘official’ register to one that is more personal. Intimate. She’s got serious interpersonal chops, Starling does, even with a sociopath. And guts, too, in being willing to talk to him one-on-one. (Although her nerves are betrayed when she’s startled by the food tray.) We also see Lecter’s code of etiquette externalized. That he respects Starling enough to be, if not exactly kind, then polite. That this politeness is important to him. And the fact that etiquette matters to him is curiously humanizing. It’s the same personal dynamics we’ll see later in the final, tense quid pro quo between the two of them.

It’s no coincidence that all of these traits inform the story very specifically. Meaning, that who they are and how they behave not only shape the narrative arc but make the story relevant period.  We root for Starling. We are fascinated by Lecter.  We give a shit about what happens because we give a shit about them.

What I’m getting at is, instead of worrying about plots, try worrying first about character. And once you’ve done that, worry about how to convey your characters’ worldviews and philosophy into action. That’s the stuff a reader remembers. Jules and Vincent ‘getting into character’ in Pulp Fiction. The Judge turning a tent revival into a manhunt in Blood Meridian. Atticus Finch tossing the glass to Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. And if you’re someone with a plot in mind but can’t write more than a few pages without deviating from it, I’ll bet it’s because your characters aren’t acting the way you thought they would. That’s okay. If they’re lively enough to strike out on their own, then they’re worth following for a while.

For next week: Using thoughts and perceptions as adjuncts to action.