Friday, April 30, 2010

A break from your regularly scheduled program

Whew, is it Friday already? Sorry finals are next week, so I am just going to duck in real quick and chime in my 2cents. Which is about all I can contribute to this week's topic.

I've thought about it, and mulled it over, and really ... I have nothing to say.

I haven't reached the stage of "professional" in any field yet.

I've worked in retail, some some temp work for the post office, and done odds and ends here and there. I am one semester (crossing fingers) away from graduation with my very own degree though, so I am close. I am almost a grown-up. LOL

I have seen some influence in my writings, but it isn't so much my field (since I don't yet have one) as it is my passion -- biology.

Yep, I have tossed in tidbits of biology every where I can, from pondering if monogomous gay werewolves would really be natural giving the animal instinct to mate and procreate (Taming the Wolf), to using studying for a biology exam and the whole taxonomy of organisms as a device to get my characters naked in an as yet unpublished piece.

Then there is my naughty spanking story that involves the scientific method and a inventive way to test it out. (Arianna's Passion For Learning in Naughty Spanking Stories From A To Z volume 2).

Oh, and who can forget the whole string theory and parallel universes that I am played with (Parallel Attraction). Or the virus I gave to the vampire race (Blood Slave).

I also had an evil, mad scientist try to uncover the secret to the vampire and shifter phenomenon. (Fangs and Fur) Things didn't go so well for him I'm afraid.

I'm sure there are others, but right now coherent thought is competing with scietific names in my brain as I am trying this post during a break from studying. I do need to get back to it, so I guess I shoudl wrap up.

I will leave you all with this last tidbit however. Should you ever need to know the answer to the Jeopardy question of the order of classification of organisms, just remember ...

King Phillip Came Over For Good Sex

Got that?

Now it should be easy to also remember that the correct order is: Kingdom, Phyllum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species

Sorry, I couldn't resist. My major isn't just biology, it is also education. : ) Hopefully, you learned something. Other than that I am a smart ass I mean.

Back to hitting the books I go!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Near Death Experiences

by Ashley Lister

I’ll hold my hand up and admit that, wherever I work, it usually affects my writing. When I worked in an office, I found a lot of my fiction was orienting around an office environment. When I was working from home, my characters seemed to spend more time away from work, or they had the good fortune to work from the place where they lived.

I could blame this on personal laziness; or maybe some sort of Mary-Sue complex. If I was the introspective type I’m sure I would have worked out which of those options it was by now. But it’s curious to reflect on the fact that there’s one workplace I’ve never written about.

As a writer, I can proudly admit to having had a chequered career. Maybe even paisley. Not including novelist and article writer, I can admit that I’ve worked as an IT manager, and admin assistant. I’ve worked as a lecturer and performance poet. I’ve also worked as a bingo caller and spent one ignoble afternoon as a door-to-door salesman. Oh! And I’ve worked in a hospital as a trainee nurse. That didn’t last long. I don’t play well with bedpans.

A good number of those professions have found their way into some element or another of my writing. Perhaps it’s not laziness. Perhaps I’m just good at recycling.
But there’s one profession that’s never made it into my fiction. That’s the time I spent working as an undertaker’s assistant: a funeral director.

I’d been working as a junior reporter (I forgot to mention that one above). The job at the funeral director’s was mentioned by a grave-digger friend. And he added that it came with accommodation. Considering the piss-poor money I was on as a junior reporter, and taking into account the desperate need I had for accommodation, I jumped at the opportunity.

I was provided with a free suit: I discovered that charcoal grey looks good on me. I was given accommodation. And I also had access to a fleet of the fastest stretched limousines imaginable. The acceleration on a Ford Lincoln is phenomenal. The pickup on an un-laden hearse is obscenely fast. Even when they’re loaded with a standard (occupied) casket, most hearses can reach a formidable top speed with surprising ease.

But it wasn’t all glamour, fast cars and fancy clothes.

Living on the premises I was also on-call one week out of every three. This meant, if someone was unfortunate enough to suffer a bereavement out of office hours, I was expected to give the deceased a ride to the onsite mortuary. It was a time of midnight phone-calls, body-bags, transit vans, and the smell of carbolic soap, coffee and cigarettes.

Sometimes it could be sad.

Sometimes it could be a pain in the backside.

And sometimes it could be disconcerting.

I remember once making a journey on my own, through unlit countryside, with a corpse in the back of my transit van. You don’t often hear someone make that honest admission unless they’ve been in the same job as me, or worked as a freelance serial killer. Anyway, I was half an hour out of town and my imagination could hear fingernails scratching at the zipper on the body-bag. I have never been so genuinely frightened. The terror was so absolute I could taste the acid fear a week later. My fingernails left imprints on the steering wheel.

But this work has never occurred in my writing.

I could be glib and blame it on my preferred genre. I doubt there is one publisher reading this thinking, “Sex at the Funeral! What a great title for a story!” But I’ve written in other genres and never alluded to my insider knowledge of this profession. I don’t think I ever will.

I could, however, point out that I took the work very seriously. I wasn’t just dealing with the disposal of people’s remains: I was trying to lend dignity to the cruelty of grief. I could also point out that I rarely write about those things I take seriously.

I don’t write stories about people who teach.

None of my central characters have ever been writers.

And I never write stories about funeral directors.

Fiction, certainly the fiction that I write, is there to entertain. Yes, there are serious elements in my stories. And I’m not beyond exploiting any situation I know to make a fiction appear more realistic. But I’m happier transforming the dull irrelevance of my experiences in office life into something intriguing and exciting, rather than using material that is already more compelling than any fiction I could create.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Adventures of the Big Boy

My family waves goodbye to her as she steps through the security line and heads off towards the gates. I don’t think my mother in law will be coming back to the US again. I only realized a couple of weeks ago what a time bomb she is. Chencha, who we lived with in our Panama years, my son’s only living grandparent, has diabetes and heart problems and god knows what. When she ran out of diabetic medicine the pharmacy said we needed the prescription from my doctor. We paid the office visit in cash because the insurance didn’t cover her. Stroke? Heart attack? They didn’t cover anything. So we treated her very carefully and now she’s on her way.

I love my mother in law, I have a lot of respect for her. But now that she’s gone I feel a wave of relief. We missed the bullet, all of us. Now I want to do something different.

The Atlanta airport is next door to College Park. College Park was where I spent two of the most formative years of my life. I feel like a hamburger.

“We’re going to Shoney’s Big Boy.” I announce to my bunch. “Home of the ‘Big Boy Burger’. That was the first job I ever had. I was a bus boy.”

“You drove a bus?” says my kid.

“No, I cleared dishes off the table and brought them to the kitchen. It’s called ‘bussing’ a table. I don’t know why. Actually I really liked that job. It wasn’t the job, it was the people I worked with.”

I pack them up in the van and dig out my road maps. All I need to do is get to the main street and I’ll know all the rest from memory. Probably.

I find my way to College Park after missing the highway exit twice and making a couple of illegal and arguably suicidal U turns. Thirty eight years is a long time to try to remember how to get somewhere you used to live. Even with a map.

On Main Street I decide to make a sentimental journey to the apartments where I used to live. This is off the map. This is pure navigation by déjà vu.

I park the car at a fancy Simones Steak and Seafood restaurant and we cross the old railroad tracks.

Navigation by déjà vu is a genuinely mystical experience. I stand on the loose granite gravel at the side of the MARTA railroad tracks and just listen to the inside of my head. A little nudge that way. I would imagine it must be like this for one of my story characters, Nixie the vampire, when she tracks someone by sense of smell. You sniff the air and make a move. It isn’t so much a sensory experience as a meditative nudge. I cross the street with my bunch whining about heat and food. They follow me like grumpy ducklings. Hawthorne Street. That was where De Etta lived. I don’t see the walk up apartment she lived in but it would be around here. And Davis Road – that’s how you get home from DeEtta’s place. Many nights in a past life, I walked in the dark up Davis Rd. I don’t remember it, I just know it was so.

I walk with my head dipped slightly, listening to the still voice of imagery of this not that. This is reincarnation. This is a man from another life smelling the trail of a young man from a past life, losing the scent and picking it up, back tracking by the still voice of intuition.

And there it is. The old apartment complex. The last place where my mother and brother and I lived altogether as a family more or less.

I show it to my wife and kid, the way a Civil War vet might show off a battlefield, but the fact is they’re more hungry than sentimental. I walk in and take a look around. There is a grassy flat ground with some bushes and a water pipe sticking up in the middle. After a moment I realize that was where the swimming pool used to be, where my brother Dave and I used to spend our summer days. Filled over and sodded. I take a couple of pictures and we start the short hike back to the van across the tracks.

Now there’s a cop car parked at Simone’s. The cop is drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup and doing paperwork. I go up to him and he looks up.

“Hi. I’m looking for Shoney’s Big Boy. Can you tell me where it is?”

“You’re there.”

I look over at Simone’s. My Spidey sense tingles. Yeah, the shape is familiar. “That’s Shoney’s?”

“Used ‘ta be. Went out of business about, oh, maybe fifteen years, give or take. Keeps changing hands. It’s been Simone’s now a couple years or so.”

I look at my family. They have those refugee eyes. Daddy’s sentimental journey is not their journey. “Hungry?”


“Okay, thanks sir.” I wave to the cop and we go in.

Sonuvabitch, it really is Shoney’s. As soon as I walk in, the cool air, the bright aquarium of exotic fish, the fancy tables with real linen tablecloths, it’s been reincarnated too as something way classier. But the ghosts are all there. In this shaded silence I hear the long gone clatter of china dishes. Plastic hardened menus with a picture of a fat kid in checkered overalls running with a hamburger. The ghostly chatter in my skull of hard working people, mostly white men, ordering burgers and sweet tea and coffee. There’s DeEtta with that silly smile and the bright eyes that don’t miss a thing balancing five plates of food on her arms like a circus performer heading for her section. There goes Little Vicky who found somebody’s bra in the back seat of her old man’s car and threw him out of the house. There goes Big Vicky, tall and slender, bawdy and good humored, who used to come back and pull her nylons up when I was drinking coffee and brag about how happy she was now with her new husband and I help felt happy for her.

They loved me and I loved them. I didn’t steal their tips, I was the only busboy they trusted. I could clear a table and wipe it down in less than a minute and leave it looking like new. I didn’t do it for the money, I did it for the ladies with a craftsman flourish. In return they sat with me over coffee and taught me about women and what they worry about all day.

The ghost of Salem the assistant manager goes by. He hated my long hair. We got in a shouting match in front of the customers, which was stupid and he fired me. As I unfastened my apron Big Vicky hauled me into the back dining room and sat me down. “Stay there.” she said. “Don’t even take off your apron.”

The waitresses went on strike.

They refused to clean the tables. All through lunch hour the dishes piled up. They swept them up against the wall and took the orders. They brought the food and the dirty plates stayed where they were. Finally Salem had to come out and bus the tables. When Bob the head manager showed up he was appalled “What the hell is this?”

“Salem fired Chris!” Yelled Little Vicky, “We’re not cleaning any tables until he’s hired back.”


“Yes sir?”

“Look at this!”

“I don’t work here anymore. I was fired.”

Bob gave Salem a murderous look. “Garcia – you’re hired. Get in there.”

My family is seated at a nice booth against the wall with thick red napkins. Where the big fish tank is, I remember now – that’s where the salad bar used to be. Probably uses the same plumbing and wiring.

All around me the ghosts come and go
talking of Michelangelo . . .

Damn. This place is expensive.

My family orders some fish and some soup. I order coffee and pie. They have sweet potato pie, made in house, which is a real treat. Even with this modest fair, I tally up the check in my head and it’ll be around fifty bucks easy. We ain’t in Shoney’s anymore.

The pie arrives and its okay. Not as good as the sweet potato pie I make, with Jack Daniels. But it’s all right. The coffee’s good. Shoney’s, right here in this very room, is where my life long love affair with coffee began. I always thought coffee tasted burned and acidy. I couldn’t figure out why people drank it. My first cup of Shoney’s Big Boy coffee was a religious revelation. I discovered it was only my mom’s coffee that was burned and acidy.

A special ghost comes up to me and whispers in my ear “Not as good as pumpkin pie?”


Oh my shit – I got you so good.

Alice. I totally nailed your ass. I guess you’ll be somebody’s grandmother by now.

November of 1972. Thanksgivings coming. Early morning I go out with Mr. Armstrong the old dishwasher to help unload the freezer truck that’s arrived from out of state filled with Shoney stuff. I haul off the turkey slices and frozen vegetables, and a couple of big boxes of frozen pumpkin pies. I bring them into the walk in cooler and unpack them in the freezing air and stack them up. This time of year it’s still pretty warm in the deep south, so working in a walk in freezer is kind of nice. I’d eat my lunch in here if I could. The pies come with these little squares of wax paper which I’m supposed to peel away. I like to lick the traces of dark pie filling off them.

At the end of the day, my last job is to clean out the toilets and then Alice the dining room manager has to inspect them. I don’t go home until the toilets pass inspection. And they never pass inspection. Alice always gets a perverse thrill out of finding something wrong every time and sending me back in with the mop and disinfectant.

At the end of the day a devil whispers in my ear.

Ten minutes until four in the afternoon. Mop and bucket. Spray bottle of Lysol. I clean out the men’s room, same as always. Spray the mirror with glass cleaner. Wipe the walls. Women’s toilet. Yell in the door “Anybody there?” No one. Women’s toilet is always cleaner than the men’s because women being what they are, don’t piss on the floor. Not even on the toilet seat.

That’s why it has to be the women’s room.

A half hour later I’m stashing my stuff. “Alice! I’m gonna go!” My apron is off and in the locker and I’m half way out the door when she yanks me back.

“You can’t go until the toilets are clean.”

“You know they’re clean. I always clean them good.”

“And I always find something. You’re not going anywhere.” She goes off to the toilets to check. I watch the men's room door close behind her. Open. Women toilet. Door closes.

Goddamn. I just love it. We’re like an old vaudeville team. Jones and Sanchez-Garcia.

DeEtta comes up to me and looks in my face. I smile.

She sees it instantly. “Jesus Christ.” She whispers. “What did you just do?”

What can I say? The woman knows me.

Alice screams.

The door to the women’s toilet flies open. “Get in here! Now!”

I tie my apron back on and go in. “Alice, I need to go.” I step in and shut the door. “What?”

There’s something brown and nasty on the mirror. Something brown and nasty on the wall. Something brown and lumpy and very, very nasty on the white porcelain rim of the toilet bowl, which in fact I had cleaned especially well for the occasion.

Alice points at the brown gunk streaked on the toilet bowl rim. “What’s that??”

Hat and cane.

A little of the old soft shoe.

Yada da da dah da –

(“A funny thing happened on the way to the toilet . . . “)

I reach down and scoop the brown goo on my finger. “Jesus, Alice. I can’t believe it.” I stick my finger in my mouth. Smack my lips. “It’s shit! Mmmmmm.”

Alice screams and runs all the way to the parking lot. A couple of customers go out to see if she’s all right, after she stops crying.

She doesn’t fire me; everybody knows now that waitress strikes are a pain in the ass. And surprisingly we become really good friends. She doesn’t inspect the toilets anymore, especially when there’s pumpkin pie in the freezer.

“Anything else, sir?”

“No thanks. It was good.”

The waiter, dressed like a philharmonic conductor, comes back with the check. I pay by credit card, something that didn’t exist the last time I was in this room.

My family gets up and heads for the door. Another thing that didn’t exist the last time I was in this room. I look at the dirty dishes a second. I look at the spoon I was eating my sweet potato pie with. There’s some left on the underside.

A devil whispers in my ear.

Hey kid. Long time, no see. All growed up?

“I gotta use the bathroom.” I call out to my wife and kid as I pick up the spoon. “Go ahead, I’ll catch up with you.”

Hat and cane.


Ah one . . .Ah two . . . the old soft shoe . . .

a doo doo dee oooo doo oo doo dee oo dee oh

Hey Alice!

Yes, Garce?

Did you hear about the blonde who put lipstick on her forehead?

No Garce! Why did the blonde put lipstick on her forehead?

Because she was trying to make up her mind!

(Drum roll. Rim shot.)

Hey Garce!

Yes, Alice?

What did the blonde waitress at Big Boy say when the customer asked for only a little lettuce?

Gee, I don't know, Alice. What did the blonde waitress at Big Boy say when the customer asked for only a little lettuce?

She said "I'm sorry sir, we only have iceberg!"

(Drum roll. Rim shot.)

Hey Alice!

Yes, Garce?

A blonde was driving down highway 20 to Augusta when she saw a sign that said "Clean Restrooms Next 10 Miles". She showed up ten hours late for her appointment.

That's too bad, Garce. Why was the blonde ten hours late for her appointment?

Because she had 26 toilets to clean!

(drum roll. Rim shot. Soft shoe. Canes tap.)

You've been a lovely audience! Say goodnight, Alice!

Good night Alice!

"All through!"

"Thank you!"

C. Sanchez-Garcia

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

And Now, For Something Completely Different

My major in college was finance, with an emphasis on monetary theory and financial institutions.

I have used that knowledge exactly once since graduation. However, if you ever want to talk about the history of the financial markets, the velocity of money, or the morality of profits, I'm your girl.

While my understanding of currency arbitrage might not have been why I was hired, everything else I learned to get my degree - spreadsheets, business communication, underdrinking everyone at a party while not looking like a judgmental prig - helped.

I started at my current firm ten years ago. There were three of us. First thing I did was streamline my work so that it barely filled fifteen hours a week. Then I went to the boss and said, "What else can I do for you?" He tossed piles of research at me and said, "I need you to understand grocery stores inside and out. You have a week." The following week, it was semiconductor manufacturers.

Now the firm has tripled in size, and my duties take over fifty hours a week, so I can't dabble in research anymore. But it was a lovely five years where I could surf the web all day and read as much as I wanted to about anything, as long as I could explain at the end of the week why hospitals and medical centers were likely or not likely to invest in a new imaging device, or whatever the question de jour was.

What I learned was how to gather a great deal of information, sift through it, figure out who was full of it and who made sense, and gather a few nuggets of information at the end of the process. As a writer, I use this skill all the time. There's a lot of garbage info out there. People don't bother to separate their opinion from fact. Or reality from their delusions. So finding information isn't the important part. Applying critical thinking is. Come to think of it - I supposedly learned that in college too.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

When I Grow Up...

By Lisabet Sarai

You never know how things will turn out. When I was in grade school, in the early days of the U.S. space program, I wanted to be an astronaut. I liked science and math and I loved reading Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. What other qualifications did I need? I was devastated to learn that I would disqualified by my extreme myopia and the total absence of arches in my feet. (It never dawned on me that my gender might be an obstacle as well.)

In high school, Watson, Crick and Franklin had just deciphered the genetic code and I was determined to become a molecular biologist. My role models were Marie Curie and Jonas Salk. I imagined myself in the lab, making world-shaking discoveries to benefit mankind. Then I had the chance to do a summer internship in a food chemistry lab and discovered how incredibly boring laboratory research could be.

As I entered undergraduate school, my goal was to be a doctor. I took all the required pre-med courses, but the more I got to know my fellow aspirants to medical school, the less sure I was that I was on the right path. Meanwhile, I took some experimental psychology courses that suggested we were on the verge of understanding perception, planning and memory. I switched majors and got my next three degrees in cognitive experimental psych. At the same time, I started to study computers and programming, since computer modeling had become a popular tool for testing psychological theories about human cognition.

Two years out of graduate school, I was burned out on psychology research. All I seemed to be accomplishing was producing publications. I yearned for a more practical, useful career. My computer courses came in handy when I applied for a job as a programmer. It was love at first coding. I discovered that I had an aptitude for developing software. The disciplined, step-by-step approach I had cultivated during my years as a researcher was a huge advantage in the software arena. Meanwhile, I loved the fact that I could take my ideas and turn them, almost magically, into an artifact that could have concrete, beneficial effects in the real world.

Then my husband (whom I had acquired along the way) and I got offered a two year contract teaching computer-related topics in Thailand. All of a sudden I was back in an academic setting, where I'd spent so many of my earlier years. Skills that I had expected never to use again—reading, writing and editing technical papers, planning research, doing statistical analyses—suddenly became relevant once more.

Back in the U.S., I returned to software engineering, this time at a higher level, as an expert consultant. But at the same time, my husband and I developed a software product of our own and established a company to market it. Now in addition to producing code, I was writing user manuals, advertisements, brochures and demos. I was attending trade shows and talking to potential customers. As the treasurer of our small corporation, I was also paying bills, filling out government forms, and dealing with tax issues.

In 1999 I published my first novel. I don't think that my career exploits up to that point had much to do with my aptitude for writing smut (though the heroine of Raw Silk happens to be a software engineer). However, many of the other skills I had acquired in my professional life turned out to be amazingly useful.

My computer knowledge obviously helps in today's world of on-line promotion. I developed the first version of my website using WSIWYG software but got terribly frustrated by the bugs and the lack of control. These days, I maintain my website manually, writing the HTML code by hand using templates developed by a graphic designer. It may sounds like a lot of work but making changes is fast, easy and most important, reliable. When I edited Cream, I was able to create a script that generated customized contracts for each of the forty odd contributors, based on a few items of information they entered in a web form. I've also considered doing some scripting to automate announcements for my blog and other news, based on my calendar.

My experience as a small business owner has made me moderately comfortable with the monetary aspects of my writing career. I have no problem keeping financial records or dealing with taxes.

Probably the most vital characteristic derived from my professional life is my relatively disciplined approach to time management. I set aside specific times for idea generation, research, writing, and promotion. Both my software and research careers helped me to develop a capacity for managing detail, which gets more and more critical daily as the world of publishing and promotion becomes more complicated.

So what happens next? I have an image of myself in fifteen years, gray-haired and frail, sitting in front of my computer and writing hot sex scenes. Given the various twists and turns my professional life has taken to get to this point, I suspect this picture may be far from accurate. But then, you never know. Maybe I've finally discovered what I'm going to be when I grow up.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Photographic Memories

When Garce invited me to guest on his blog as part of the Why Does It Work? theme, he asked me to write a kind of “Director’s Commentary” on a short story – explaining why I wrote it the way that I did, what techniques I used, what changes I made, and so on. The idea is to answer the “How did he do that?” question.

I’m going to walk you through “Photographic Memories.” This is a short piece (1,815 words) that I wrote towards the end of 2001 when I’d been writing for a couple of years. I submitted it to Clean Sheets, who helped me edit it –they came up with the idea of putting the lecture in italics rather than quotation marks – and published it in April 2002.

At this point, I suggest you go and read the story. You can find it here:

“Photographic Memories”

The story started with me thinking about what it means to be a photographer and what the similarities are between photographs and poems or short stories or scenes in a play.

I was interested in how the photographer/author leads the viewer/reader and what kind of person you need to be to want to do this: arrogant, socially distant, manipulative (OK, so just because I can tick all those boxes doesn’t mean they apply to all writers or photographers).

But seriously, what kind of man always carries a camera? What does it do to someone to have their view of the world framed by a lens? I came up with most of Philip’s lecture statements while I was thinking this through.

One of the reasons that I write erotica is that I think sex and lust and love and the things they make us do, tell us more about a person then almost any other aspect of their lives. So I started to think about what sex with this photographer would be like. Then I realized that the story would work best if I thought about who would want to have sex with this man, who would love him and his arrogance and his need to see the world on his terms?

That was when I stated to hear the narrators voice and I knew that, to bring the photographer alive I needed to see him through the lens of his lover.

I write a lot about dominance and submission. In my mind, this story has strong elements of that theme. Philip is a classic Dom, charismatic, arrogant, narcissistic, and capable of focusing the entire force of his personality on a single person in a single moment. The narrator (I didn’t give her a name – a name would put more distance between her and the reader) is also my version of a classic Sub: strong, intelligent, introspective, self-aware and with a deep-rooted desire to surrender herself.

So now I had a Dom/sub thing in my head, with a bunch of metaphors related to photography and what it means about how we see reality. I also had the narrator’s voice in my ear. I need this. Her voice is my guide to keeping the story real. There are things she wouldn’t say or do and things that she would believe to be true or necessary. At the start of the story I don’t know what those things are. Writing the story is partly about finding those answers.

What I needed next is all the stuff that makes the story work.

This is a story of ideas and emotions, not action. In fact, almost nothing happens in this story. Imagine trying to pitch this in Hollywood:

“So, Aaron, we open with this thirty-something, Cambridge educated, introspective woman, watching her slightly-burnt-out forty-something husband give a lecture on the art of photography to a bunch of hot female undergrads.”

“Cool – though let’s make the couple younger and make it film rather than photography – Does he screw the undergrads? Does she watch? Does she join in? Is she Bi?”

“No. He gives the lecture and she recalls their life together and some bad stuff that happened to him. Meanwhile he woos her with photographs. Sex is a flashback and there’s almost no dialog.”

“For this you needed a script?”

By the end of the story, I want the reader to love the narrator, to feel sympathy for Philip and to hope that their love can survive what has happened to them.

The first thing that helps me get there is the lecture conceit. The construct of the lecture allows two views of Philip – the direct view based on what he says, and the narrator view. It gives the narrator some distance so that she can see him without interacting with him.

The opening lines show this:

The camera never lies. It is we who… elaborate.

One sentence and he has their attention. By the end of the lecture he will have their devotion–as he has mine. Poor Philip, so many devotees and so little idea of what to do with us.

Here we get a key idea – the link between elaboration, lies and meaning – the first indication of Philip as a flashy performer, and the information that the narrator understands what he is doing, sees him as “poor Philip” and is devoted to him. That’s a lot of information and a reasonable hook

The lecture format allows us to see how Philip interacts with all those undergrads and to know how the narrator reacts to that.

The lecture also supplies a way of dumping ideas directly into the story. The lecture content is a little like music in a movie, it conditions the reader’s listening.

In the coming weeks, you will learn how to see, so that you can lead the elaboration of others.

The art of photography is to use a lie to tell a truth.

The camera is a machine for trapping time. Flypaper for moments of truth.

Each photograph is a time capsule. A message in a bottle.

The lecture also allows a second voice other than the narrators.

Normally, in a first person story, the authorial voice, such as it is, is delivered via the narrator. Here the author gets a second shot via the content of the lecture.

And of course, the content of the lecture is a partial explanation to the reader of what the author (me) is doing – elaborating, leading the perception of the reader.

Finally, the lecture structure anchors the action or at least the narrator’s interior dialogue,

Truth needs distance, not context, … Context distracts, distance provides focus.

This statement leads the narrator to examine the true nature of her relationship with Philip.

The lecture constantly brings the narrator and the reader back to Philip as he is today, keeping him literally centre stage in our imaginations and setting the expectation that something has to happen at the end of the lecture.

The second thing that gets me there is the narrator’s voice. By making the story first person I create the opportunity for intimacy. The tone of her voice shapes our view of the narrator. She comes across as calm, articulate and self-aware with a slightly dry sense of humour: for example she says this of Philip:

His voice is rich and sensual. The serpent spoke to Eve with such a voice, I think.

This shows that she knows Philip is a trickster but that the tricks still work. The structure of the second sentence uses a phrasing that betrays a trained intellect and a love of language and perhaps just a hint of being too serious.

I needed to make her more human than Philip. She is fun underneath her calm exterior. After all, it is partly her joy in life that Philip feeds upon. Hence the reference to pop culture…

Unbidden, a pop song that Philip would wrinkle his nose at, slides into my mind and refuses to leave: “If you wanna know if he loves you so, it’s in his kiss.”

…that returns quickly to her habitual level of analysis…

That was how he caught me the first time, with his kiss.

I had been kissed before, many times: flirtatious kisses, passionate kisses, eager kisses; but no one had ever kissed me like this. This kiss was a contract, a promise. It was a connection that couldn’t be broken; an indelible brand that changed who I was.

…that leads to the only direct depiction of sex in the story and even that description shows that, for the narrator, sex with Philip is about connection…

The sex that followed was an extension of his kiss. Philip stripped me and pinned me to the floor, entering me without asking, holding my arms out in a cruciform, letting me writhe and struggle but making his cock the pivot of my world.

Finally, I needed to make her vulnerable so that she is easier to love and her later loss can be felt more deeply

When it was over I was crying. Crying because it was over. Crying because I knew he would leave me. Crying because no one would ever fuck me like that again.

Two more things were needed to make the story work – a tragedy to bring the characters into relief and create the opportunity for loss, forgiveness, redemption and hope (hey, why not aim high? If you go there you’re readers will follow you) and a way of using the timeline to add dynamism to a static situation.

I used a train crash to break through the shield that Philip holds between himself and the world. Here was carnage on a scale that he could not change by fiddling with composition, lighting and focal length.

The train crash is real. It was a route I sometimes travelled. I drew upon the emotions I felt when I saw the footage of the crash to help channel some emotion here.

I also wanted to see what would happen to a Dom/Sub relationship when the Dom breaks and the sex goes sour. The narrator told me that all there was left fall back on was love and memory. Philip told me that you could also add hope.

Playing with the timeline is an important part of what makes this story work.

We start with an image of Philip and the narrator in the present day. We perhaps wonder why she is so tolerant of his philandering and why she sees him as “poor Philip”.

Then the lecture triggers a flashback and we get “the cute meet” scene beloved of romantic comedies followed by a lightning-bright brief sex scene, music video style. Then the reflection leads to carnage, death and impotence.

By the time we get back to the lecture our perception of the narrator and Philip has changed. We have been lead to the point where the lecture tells us:

Truth needs distance, not context,

Which triggers the narrator to take a here-and-now look at Philip. Her introspection is no longer a flash back. Her attention and ours are on the lecture.

This sets up Philip’s love song to her. His invitation through photographs. His elaboration on the next step in their lives. Finally we get to see the narrator through Philip’s eyes and what we see is strength and love and hope.

The ending is symbolic. It mirrors the language Philip used in their first meeting but it gives the Philip role to the narrator. It is now her job to lead the elaboration.

I believe a writer makes the reader and implicit promise: if you stick with the journey I take you on, I promise you will know when you’ve arrived. This ending is me trying to deliver on that promise.

So that’s how it works. At least, that’s how I think it works. You may see it differently.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Breaking the Fourth Wall

By Ashley Lister

There might be some of you reading this who’ve never encountered the Rocky Horror Picture Show. If that’s the case, you’ll find the next few hundred words either puzzling, peculiar or pointless.

Created by Richard O’Brien, the man who wrote the book, music and lyrics, the Rocky Horror Picture Show is a musical that parodies science fiction films and B-movie horror flicks. The 1975 film version, taken from the original 1973 stage production, had a cast that included Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Meatloaf, Barry Bostwick, Charles Grey and Richard O’Brien himself. Interest was also shown by Mike Jagger for the role of Frank N Furter whilst Vincent Price considered the part of the Criminology. Now, thirty five years after Jim Sharman directed the version for the cinemas, the Rocky Horror Picture Show remains not so much a musical, as a rite-of-passage experience.

Part of this is to do with the quality of the songs. O’Brien wrote the original score in 1973 yet the songs and the music are as vibrant and enjoyable today as they were when it was first on stage.

There are not many musicals that can make this grand claim.

Part of the success is the fact that the film is parodying recognisable genre stereotypes. The plot is a ridiculous coming-of-age/Frankenstein’s monster/spooky old house/alien invasion combination that would defy a rational synopsis. None of the stories or subplots within the Rocky Horror Picture Show is particularly original. But they all work beautifully together. And each of the parodies fit snugly and seamlessly together.

Obviously, a large part of the success should be credited toward the writer and the cast for pulling off such a wonderful big screen performance. Tim Curry is an astounding Frank N Furter. O’Brien’s Riff Raff is an hilarious combination of sinister and pathetic – which doesn’t hamper his ability to sing or dance. Little Nell and Meatloaf enjoy a genuine onscreen chemistry.

But the main contributor to the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s continuing success has to be the audience participation. If I had the time or skills to research, there’d be a fascinating piece here explaining when and where the first audience participation occurred. But I’m equipped with neither. And, like so many things in life, the first time isn’t really that important.

Most accounts say the audience interaction began with the midnight showings in New York and Texas around 1976. This may or may not be true. What is important is that it continues to happen.

A large percentage of Rocky Horror Picture Show fans go to see the film dressed in costumes similar to the larger-than-life characters on screen. Thanks to VHS and DVD the script is known verbatim to aficionados and this insider knowledge prompts the onscreen dialogue with catcalls and coarse remarks:

RIFF-RAFF (to Brad & Janet): I think perhaps you better both…
RIFF-RAFF: come inside.


Frank N Furter: Whatever happened to Faye Wray?
AUDIENCE: She got fucked by a gorilla.

It sounds childish and reductive. The audience are wearing stockings, corsets and heels. The decorum of the traditional cinema experience is replaced by singing, shouting, dancing in the aisles, the throwing of rice, firing water pistols, and general madcap antics that would have most people announcing the end of civilization. Yet it works.

More than that, the success of the cinema experience has meant that the show has gone back to the stage. Live performances take the interactive experience one step further:

Frank N Furter: Whatever happened to Faye Wray?
AUDIENCE: She got fucked by a gorilla.
Frank N Furter: So did your mother!

Why is it a success? Because it’s fun and sexy. More than that, there are very few films or stage shows that can claim to provide a different experience every time. And perhaps it’s that blend of the familiar with something new that allows this theatre experience to reside in its own legendary time warp. Or, perhaps it’s the sense of anarchic hedonism in the film – physically accessible to the audience through dressing up and shouting in the sanctuary of a theatre – that makes it appeal to creatures of the night? Whatever the reason, the Rocky Horror Picture Show remains an outstanding experience and leaves audiences with a single, compelling message: don’t dream it, be it. It’s difficult to imagine a more apposite phrase for a film that relies so heavily on audience participation.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Palahniuk Effect: "Guts"

I'm going to introduce you to the most viscerally powerful short story I've ever read. Flat out. But - first I need you do a couple of things.

For your own safety, I mean.

From this moment on you should be sitting in an easy chair or maybe laying down is even better. Padding. So you won't hurt yourself.

A glass of water nearby. Maybe a small waste can and a roll of paper towels would also be prudent. Last, if possible, a spouse or a reliable friend who is good in an emergency. Do not have someone read it to you aloud while driving a car or operating heavy machinery.

So there.

We will assume you have done these things and proceed.

The last person recorded to have fainted during a public reading of "Guts" was on May 28, 2007 at the public library of Victoria, British Columbia in Canada. Strictly speaking he didn't faint as a result of the story but as a consequence of running for the exit, fainting in mid stride and hitting his head on the way to the floor. He was one of five who dropped during that reading. In Milan Italy a professional actor read the translation aloud in excellent Italian and entire rows went down as though they'd been machine gunned. Thus far a total of 73 people have officially fainted during public readings of "Guts" at least until people stopped counting. That's what books can do for you folks.

Damn I wish I'd written it.

Stop reading this, I'm talking to you there, go to the link I'm going to give you and read "Guts". It only takes a few minutes, its not a long story at all. In fact here's how it begins.

Take in as much air as you can.
This story should last about as long as you can hold your breath, and then just a little bit longer. So listen as fast as you can.”
From “Guts” Chuck Palahniuk

Here is the link to "Guts" a short story by my literary hero Chuck Palahniuk. You can read it for free. Off you go, now. Come back after you pull yourself together.

From this moment on the blog will be divided into two camps. The readers with “Guts’, and the "Guts" virgins.

The readers are those who obediently went to the link and followed through and survived more or less intact. The virgins are those who did not take it seriously and didn’t check it out at all, and those who did and found themselves unable to finish it. I fall into both camps. The first time I read it I couldn't finish it. I thought I was tough. I was not. I went back and finished it the second time, both times cringing in my seat, chewing my thumb and laughing my ass off insanely at the funny parts.

Now you Guts virgins - go back and read it. Go on. Get outta here. You're missing a thing of hideous beauty. Come back when you know something. You will note that I have not told you anything about the story premise or what it's about. Nor will I. But I would like to talk about the "Palahniuk Effect", how the great man does what he does so well.

The genre Palahniuk writes in and maybe some of us also write in without knowing it had a name, is “transgressive fiction”. This is a kissing cousin of pulp fiction which walks a fine line on what is forbidden in commercial fiction and often cheerfully vaults over it. This would include stories that are potentially offensive either on a moral level such as “Lolita”, which on its surface after all is a sexual affair between a man and a twelve year old girl, or a publishable level such as “Guts” (The first time it was submitted to Playboy magazine it was refused as “too disturbing”. When the editor attended a reading at Union Square Library in New York during which a man was carted off in an ambulance, he was impressed. It appeared in Playboy in 2004). Transgressive Fiction can also include gay erotica, BDSM stories, flagellation and so on. It concerns characters who feel confined by the moral conventions of society and in the course of the story break out by doing luridly illicit or in the case of “Guts”, incredibly dumb things.

"Guts" is told from the first person POV in a very specific way. Palahniuk has several essays on writing at his web site which I have lately been studying on my knees. He has a lot to say about the crafting of "Guts". Any story opens with a particular problem for the writer, which is the early establishing of authority with the reader. This is connected with the “suspension of disbelief ”. The reader has to trust where you’re leading them, no matter how weird it is, and be willing to give your characters the benefit of the doubt. This is especially true in the case of the first person point of view, with all of its intimacy offered to the reader right up front in the voice of the narrator. Palahniuk explains that this can be done by either heart or head.

To establish authority by heart means to speak of yourself in a way that speaks straight to the reader, without putting on airs. You might do this by revealing early on something that doesn’t make you look all that good. Something which is more of the honest fool then the hero. You have to establish this as quickly as possible, in the first few sentences.

For instance this is how Mark Twain starts off Huckleberry Finn:

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”

The reader likes Huckberry's voice. He sounds like a straight forward kid.

Or this, from the opening of Phillip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint”:

“She was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise”.

He sounds like a dubious character, but someone worth knowing. You wonder what the deal is with his mother too.

Imagine being on a date with someone who only talks constantly about what a great person he/she is and how lucky you are to be with them. There won’t be a second date. The same with a reader. By showing your warts early on you are being vulnerable, holding out your hand to a certain trust and intimacy with the reader. You don’t have to be a good person or even a very nice person. Just somebody worth knowing.

The other way is “establishing authority” with the head. This is in fact the way Palahniuk starts out “Guts”. Now that I think of it, that is also the way in which I have introduced this blog entry. This is usually done by listing a series of details, either technical or emotional details that show the reader your narrator has been where he/she describes and knows what they’re talking about from experience and knowledge. A handy example would be my own Nixie at the beginning of the story “The Lady and the Unicorn” which establishes authority with the head method:

“. . . Blood has a range of taste, as scent has a range of aromas. Blood has a high level taste and an under taste. It is a blending of elements like music. This is also the way of scent. The under aroma tells you there is a trail and betrays to you the direction. If the scent becomes fresher you are following the creature that produced it, so you must use the under scent to know which direction is older and which is newer. It is as though the air were filled with singing voices and you are picking out from the choir the sound of a single voice. The high scent will tell you the individual, the condition of the individual, if it is injured or sick, horny or filled with fear. It will tell you how to catch him, where he is likely to run to. To acquire the high scent the animal, or myself, must pause to commune with the air and pay attention. Close the eyes. Hold the nose still and just so. Let the night air speak. It is the same with the deep taste of blood, except that scent is on the move, and if you are tasting the blood – well. It is no longer on the move.”

That opening paragraph is basically a grocery list of details to give the sensory impression of how it would be to have a natural predator’s extraordinary sense of smell, which was a recurring theme in the story. The narrator’s quiet voice speaks from experience without putting on airs other than a simple sense of delight. There is never a moment where the narrator tells you how dangerous she is. Still, by the end of the paragraph she doesn’t have to.

The next is the establishment of pattern and motif. "Guts" is in some ways a long detailed list. It is a story in three acts, giving the details of three scenes or events of increasing . . . effect . . we'll call it. "Guts" is also based on true stories. Palahniuk swears it.Palahniuk explains in the back story commentary that he acquired these stories over time while researching his novel “Choke”. He could have assembled them in any pattern, but arranged them in an ascending order. The motif of the story is actually based on the theme of holding the breath which begins the story. Holding the breath is a metaphor for things that exist between family members that are too awful or ridiculous to talk about, and waiting in suspense for those things to be revealed. This is the recurring pattern that keeps resounding after each event is described. Let’s talk about that description.

He has established trust, if not sympathy, between the narrator and the reader. The events unfold. The sensory description, which is also a critical element to erotica writing, is based on the minimal depiction of a single ultra-realistic detail. The kind of detail only the narrator would know. That carefully chosen detail is a note that brings the side elements into the light. Palahniuk advises “When a normal person has a headache, they take aspirin. When a writer has a headache, he takes notes.” You try to find a way of conveying the experience of a headache, not just the bland statement that a headache exists. You don’t say the beer was delicious. You describe the beer as malty and bitter and cold. The reader decides if that’s delicious or not, not you. If you are describing a desperate man crossing an unlit railroad yard in the dead of night, a man who is obsessively afraid of the dark – and I have written that story – you don’t say “It was dark.” Hell. We know that. Instead you describe the man dropping to the ground in a fit. Digging his fingernails in the dirt, until they hurt. Biting the dirt with his teeth and weeping shamefully. Describe how it feels to suffocate with brainless panic and then seeing just in front of his eyes the moonlight glinting off a single piece of broken bottle glass.

Moonlight. Glass. Specifically from a bottle. One piece.

That makes it feel dark, and feel is what you want. Palahniuk says the line that seemed to send most of the fainters spiraling to the floor is the one with the words “corn and peanuts”. That’s a very specific detail known only to the narrator until he reveals it in a way that brings the scene home and nails it.

Now, if the image of corn and peanuts isn’t turning you green at this moment, and maybe for the rest of your life, it’s because you’re a Guts-Virgin.

Come over here, little virgin.

Come over here. Gonna tighten' up your wig for you.

Come sit close to me, baby. No. More close. Touching close.

Trust me.

Now. What we’re gonna do. It’s all up to you. Won’t make you do nuthin’ you don’t want. Good?

You got a little mouse for me, sweetie. Let’s see that little mouse you got.

Oh. Oh isn’t that beautiful. Your mama gave you the sweetest beautiful mouse. Look what you’ve been hiding from me all this time.

How is that mouse . . . There. Isn’t that nice? You like that?

Put your finger there on the left button. Just keep it there like that ‘till I say.

That’s the way. Feel nice? You like that? You bet you like it. Bet your mouse like that. Bet your mama like that.

See that down there? No, lower down. See that?

Well, that’s my URL. Ever seen one of those before? Yeah? You’re not so innocent like you look.

What you’re gonna do for me is put your little pointer there, baby, right there and give my URL a nice little squeeze. That’s how it’s done. Move it right down there. Do it just for me. Then I’ll know you love me good, sugar.

You’re going good. Oh that’s sweet how you do that. Oh that’s so good. I can watch you move your mouse all night long. You’re going so good at this already and you think you like it now, man, you gonna love it later.

Don’t stop here. Down there’s where all the action is. Put your little pointer right down there. Oh, that's the way. Hold it there.



C. Sanchez-Garcia

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Strictly Ballroom

Fair warning: I took several years of Cotillion. At one point in my life, I actually knew how to ballroom dance. So I’m aware that the actors in this movie aren’t great dancers. The distance between their bodies alone drives me nuts, but if I can ignore that, so can you.

Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom (He also directed Moulin Rouge) is an early example of his ability to mix absurd and surreal elements with reality in his stories. At its core, the story of Strictly Ballroom is ugly-duckling girl chases perfect boy, romancy stuff, happy ending. While this theme that women have to transform themselves (read: tart up) to get their man is irritating, it’s a staple in many books and movies. But putting that aside, here’s the longer synopsis of the story in Strictly Ballroom, which I'm telling you to set up the two clips I discuss below:

Scott is poised to be the next Pan-Pacific ballroom champion, when he *gasp* starts dancing his own steps. This rebellion against the powers-that-be puts his future in ballroom in jeopardy, so his partner leaves him. Scott’s mother runs a dance studio. She brings partner after partner to him as the days tick down to the all important Pan-Pacific (a win will guarantee the success of the family’s dance studio), but none will do. As Scott practices his steps alone in the studio, a frumpy girl (Fran) from the beginner’s class tells him that she likes his steps and would like to dance with him. He laughs at her at first, but she shows him a step that will complete the sequence he’s trying to choreograph, so he gives her dance lessons in private in the hopes that she’ll be good enough to help him out at the Pan-Pacific. As they spend more time together, he meets her family of Spanish immigrants. It turns out that her father and late mother were famous dancers. When Scott shows the father and grandmother his moves, they laugh at his style. What? He’s great, or at least he’s always been told so, and yet, here are people who tell him that he just doesn’t get it. They teach him to dance their way. At the next competition before the Pan-Pacific, Scott and Fran are going to dance together in public for the first time, but before that happens, Scott’s mother announces that Tina Sparkle (love her name) , who has been the partner of the reigning champion, has agreed to be Scott’s new partner. Fran runs off. At that moment, Scott has to decide between the dream partner who will assure him a Pan-Pacific win, and a partner who he has come to have feelings for.

The YouTube clip below starts the scene a few moments later than I would have edited it. Fran is backstage peering through the curtains as Tina Sparkle and her partner perform their farewell dance for the crowd. Tina is thin and glamorous. She looks good in a glorified bikini with green rumba sleeves. Fran says to Scott, “She’s beautiful. I could never dance like that.” What she means is, “I understand why you’d choose her over me.” She closes the curtain and turns away.

Earlier in the film, Scott embarrasses Fran by telling her that even though the dance they’re practicing is the dance of love, it isn’t real. She’s been pursuing him, and he’s damn callous about it. After all, he knows he’s the catch. But now Scott realizes he’s about to lose Fran. Suddenly, he has to pursue her. The power dynamic is turned on its head in a breathtaking bit of storytelling. The song they dance to, Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps, is probably the most perfect soundtrack selection ever, reflecting where the characters are emotionally and the questions that hang between them.

Look at the setting: They’re behind the scenes, where things are hidden. They’ve been practicing together secretly. No one in his world knows he’s been dancing with her. He leads her behind sheer curtains that glow with soft pink light, evocative of a boudoir. It feels forbidden.

Note the expression on Fran’s face as they dance. Scott pulls her into a brief embrace, but she can’t see his expression. She isn’t quite sure what Scott’s up to, and she’s not sure if she should trust him. He dips her. A quick dip, a woman can control with the man simply spotting her, but a slow dip that low is all about trust. She has to believe that he won't let her fall or she will (personal experience). But there's also an implied motion behind the dip - he's easing her in a prone position, as if onto a bed. When she looks into his eyes, her expression shifts to “convince me.” He caresses her face.

While Scott and Fran aren’t in skimpy clothes or doing suggestive moves, the intimacy of their dance shocks everyone who sees it, because it’s meant to be a private seduction.

Then they realize they've been seen and she falls, or Scott drops her. You decide.
Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps

But of course, things have to get complicated, or you don’t have a story.

Urged by villain Barry Fife, Scott later agrees to dance the regulation steps with Tina Sparkle instead of his own steps with Fran. Scott doesn’t know it, but years ago, his father dared to dance his own steps too. His mother, also under persuasion from Barry Fife, betrayed his father at the last moment and danced with another partner, insuring that Barry Fife won the Pan-Pacific and went on to rule the ballroom dance scene with an iron fist. Since then, Scott’s father hasn’t danced. Barry is frightened of dance steps he can’t teach, so he fixes the Pan-Pacific, insuring that Scott will lose even with Tina Sparkle as a partner. Without knowing this, Scott decides to go for broke and dance with Fran. He won’t win the Pan-Pacific, but he’ll win the girl. As Barry Fife looks sure to triumph, Scott’s father comes to the rescue (as does Scott’s little sister in a confection of pink marabou, Scott’s former dance partner in canary, his friends, and Fran’s father and grandmother).

Everything about Fran and Scott at this moment in the film shows they’ve moved beyond being Strictly Ballroom. Fran started off as dowdy (to be kind). Her style changes, but she never dresses like the other female characters. When you first see Scott, he dresses like everyone else in the ballroom world, but his style evolves and converges with Fran’s. The outfits they wear in the final scene belonged to Fran’s mother and father and are remarkably different from the other dancers. (In Paso Double, the man is a matador, the woman is sometimes his cape, other times the bull.) They are now “authentic;” the other dancers on the floor are merely wearing costumes.

Fran and Scott dance the Paso Double with passion and in the style of Fran’s family, not regulation steps. Even the choreography here tells part of the story. At the end of the dance, having proven what he wanted to, Scott ends on his knees before Fran. This personal victory is because of her, and he knows it. Then he rises and gives her a look that is raw possession. Until now, partners have been interchangeable, but this woman is his.

Maybe they don’t win a trophy, but Fran and Scott triumph anyway. Scott and Fran’s rebellion liberates the dance scene from Barry Fife’s rule. Scott’s father and mother dance together for the first time since the big betrayal. Dance is now about expressing joy. Everyone takes to the dance floor in celebration to the tune of Love is in the Air.

Final Scene

Strictly Ballroom is a good story, and has a fantastically witty script but it's hardly a unique tale. What makes it stand out is how Baz Luhrmann used every piece of storytelling craft available to him to enhance the impact.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Anatomy of a Blockbuster

By Lisabet Sarai

This week Garce asked us to choose a story, book or film and then analyze why it worked—or why it didn't. My first inclination was to pick one of my favorite erotica stories. I was thinking of choosing “Butoh-ka” by Remittance Girl. Then I realized that my post wouldn't mean anything at all to visitors if they were not familiar with the tale. Remittance Gir's name is not exactly a household word (at least not yet!)

The same problem would arise with practically any literary work that I chose, unless I decided to tackle a classic like Lolita or To Kill a Mockingbird. Famous or universally admired books, though, have already been analyzed to death by critics and academics far more insightful (and more facile with critical jargon) than I am.

Stuck with this dilemma, I decided to look at a narrative work that only a Stone Age tribesman buried in the jungles of Papua New Guinea would fail to recognize: the recent blockbuster film “Avatar”.

Of course, reams have already been written, pro and con, about this movie. The outbursts that it has inspired (condemnations as racist, praise for advocating environmental responsibility) testify to its emotional impact as much as to its masterful marketing.

I saw “Avatar” in a normal 2D theater, on a wide screen with top-quality digital sound. I didn't expect to like it. I tend to be quite cynical about popular hype and my opinions rarely coincide with the mainstream media. Furthermore, I'm a ferocious critic of films that use special effects as a substitute for convincing and engaging storytelling. The advances in computer graphics are astounding, but technical flash by itself does not impress me.

Much to my surprise, I loved the film. I was totally absorbed in the story, walking through the forests of Pandora, soaring through the skies. The movie consumes three hours, but didn't feel long at all. About two hours into the film, I had to tear myself away for a bathroom break. I was astonished to find that my heart was beating double speed from the adrenalin surging through my blood.

For several days after seeing “Avatar”, it lingered in my thoughts. I enthusiastically recommended it to several friends. It colored my dreams. I even blogged about it.

So why is it that this film worked for me? The plot is neither original nor surprising, although it does have a mythic quality in its stark portrayal of good versus evil. The characters, with the exception of the chain-smoking xenobiologist played by Susan Sarandon, are mostly archetypes with little depth or subtlety.

I have come to the conclusion that the film's appeal rests in its ability to totally immerse the audience in the alien world of Pandora. This is partially the result of the close-to-perfect rendering of the alternate reality on the screen—a technical tour de force even without 3D. However, the key lies not in the computer graphics, in my opinion, but in the imagining of Pandora. Pandora feels real because, marvelous as it is, its landscapes and its creatures are familiar. The plants and animals are no stranger than species one might encounter on earth.

Consider the sentient floating seeds that convey the messages of the Earth Mother to the heroine Neytiri. They combine the gossamer quality of dandelion seeds with the luminosity and dynamics of jellyfish. Recall the scene where Jake walks through a grove of trumpet-like flowers that snap shut at the slightest touch. Anyone who has ever seen a mimosa or a Venus Flytrap will recognize the quality of motion. Pandora offers creatures reminiscent of horse, rhinoceros, wolf. The dragon-like flying steeds soar and dive like eagles.

The Pandorans themselves are no stranger in appearance than my hypothetical Papuan native. Where they diverge from human form and behavior, they recall the grace and alertness of felines. We are not asked to identify with an truly alien race. The Pandorans are us.

Despite the familiar basis of many of the film's images, “Avatar” succeeds magnificently in evoking a sense of wonder. But then, our own earth has scenes and beings as marvelous as those of Pandora. If you have ever visited Hawaii (where live sequences of “Avatar” were shot) or Bali, the Amazon jungle or the badlands of Utah, you have likely experienced landscapes equally outlandish, mysterious and awe-inspiring.

Viewed as science fiction, “Avatar” is very tame. It plays no serious games with “reality”. It gives us aliens who could well be our close cousins. It demands no extreme leaps of imagination. Paradoxically, that is why it succeeds. Pandora is gorgeous, dangerous, addictive, full of marvels—just like our own world. The computer graphics make it convincing, but it is the familiarity, with just a twist of the strange, that makes it so easy for us to believe, to enter seamlessly into the universe of the film.

I do not mean to minimize James Cameron's accomplishment here. It sounds simple, but actually making the familiar-to-strange transformation work must have been devilishly difficult. Certainly, I've seen dozens of movies where the film maker failed miserably in this regard.

I wonder how much of this analysis might be applicable to fiction. Film is a visual medium, while writing is not. Still, the authors who succeed in making other times and places real—do they use the same strategy, playing on what we know in order to make the strange feel real, normal, convincing?

That might be an interesting thought to ponder in a future blog post.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

They're back ...

Jenna Byrnes and Jude Mason are back with us this weekend as our guest blogger. : )

Jenna: One of my favorite parts of the writing process is choosing a title. Jude might tell you that she agonizes over the process, but I absolutely love it. It’s like when I’m writing a mystery-- I might walk around seemingly normal on the outside, but inside I’m constantly mulling over tiny clues to throw into the story. Finding the perfect title sometimes works like that. I mull it over for hours, days, and occasionally even weeks, until the right name comes to mind.

Jude: Agonizes, she says. Add pulls hair out and whimpers and you may be close. Titles are often very difficult for me. I mull things over, but titles, unfortunately, either come to me out of the blue, or are like pulling teeth.

Jenna: About 75% of the time, I have a title in mind when I start writing. The rest of the time, as I write, a line pops out and I choose it for the title.
Jude: My ratio is a little different. 50% of the time I’ll have a title which leads to the story, or ‘is’ the story. A for instance, I saw Scorpio Tattoo. The title was there, the cover art, and the story, all at the same time. I knew the entire thing within minutes. That happens very rarely, and it’s awesome when it does.

Jenna: There’ve been a handful of manuscripts which were completely finished before the perfect title came to me, and I’ll admit, that bugs me. I like to know my title and I really don’t like ‘working titles’ that get changed after the fact. It’s like waiting until your child is born before you name it, or worse yet, changing the name when the kid is a few days old. *shudders* Not for me.

Jude: This is more the norm for me. (Okay, so my kids were named BEFORE they were born, honest, but the rest fits) Often, I’ll have the story completely done, my edits done and the work sent to Jenna for editing, the title still a complete mystery. She’ll often make suggestions and if I don’t get the title from her, I’ll get an idea. I’ve even had editors help me out with this.

Jenna: A couple times I’ve asked Jude to help me think of a title while she’s proofing a manuscript, and that has worked out well. Another time, a publisher asked me to change a title which she thought wasn’t sexy enough. I won’t say which book that was for, but I still hate the title ultimately chosen. LOL

Jude: Yes, I’ve offered my help a time or two, but this really is one aspect of being an author I’m not truly comfortable with. I distinctly remember saying to my first publisher, ‘you mean I have to come up with the title too?’

When Jenna has come to me about a title, I’ll do my best to offer ideas rather than the title. Sometimes it gives her a jumping off point and I’m thrilled when it happens. I really believe having the correct title, or a title that grabs the readers is one of the most important things. The cover might attract them first, but the title is second.

Jenna: I enjoy using a twist of words to create a title. I used to like using a character’s name, as in Convincing Cate and Switching Seth. Then I started seeing how many authors did that and how many verbs were tortured to come up with titles, so I’m trying to get out of that phase.
Jude: Well, I have always been awed by Jenna’s ability to come up with the perfect title. Titles like Alex’s Appeal and Feral Heat, to name just a couple. I never thought ‘tortured verb’, I did think ‘nice twist.’

Jenna: However it happens, I still love choosing titles. The satisfaction that comes from finding just the perfect one, for a writer, can’t be beat.

Jude: I’m in total agreement. When a title works, it’s magic and people notice. That’s what you want. When a title misleads or misses the mark, it can mean readers will prance on to the next book because they really didn’t ‘get’ what the first was meant to say. For a prolific author it’s more difficult, but it really is important.

They say the cover grabs the reader first. I agree. If you’re in a book store, you may be looking for that author you always buy. But, if you see a splash of color or the hunky guy in just the right pose with just the right props, you’ll stop to at least look. The title has to be right there, ready to snag them.

Speaking of titles, we’ve got a couple you might like to check out:
Stallion’s PrideBy Jude Mason and Jenna Byrnes
ISBN: 978-0-85715-058-5
Publisher: Total E-Bound

Purchase here
A recently discovered horse talisman and a gypsy horse changeling tribe seem like the perfect match. Is headstrong Brishen ready for the power the talisman brings?It's a stressful time for the familya of gypsy horse changelings. Shandor, King of the Gypsies, has died, leaving the clans at war and his son, Brishen, struggling with his new-found leadership. Brishen also struggles with something more personal - choosing a life mate. Will it be Tawnie, the female his father selected for him? Or handsome Jal, whose masculine features excite Brishen more than anything has before?In cougar territory, a day's journey away, clan leader Kai and his mate Aric are dealing with an issue of their own. A new talisman discovered - a brilliant purple stone with the head of a horse in gold filigree. Unaware of any horse changelings, Kai calls a meeting of the talisman holders to discuss what should be done.Tarek, leader of the bears, and Cole, ruler of the wolves, come together with Kai to track down their new changeling brothers. When they find the horses and meet young, headstrong Brishen, it's a battle of wills - a battle no one wants to lose.
Binary Stars: Willing and Able
Co-authors Jude Mason and Jenna Byrnes
Publisher: Phaze
Release date: coming soon

By Jenna Byrnes

Colt Willing never expected to be a key player in a drug-running operation. Before he can get out, he's determined to release the hold the organization has on Jonathan, the man he's grown to love. Jonathan has ties that bind him to drug-lord Nigel Caprice, and breaking the bonds may prove too difficult for Willing to tackle alone.

By Jude Mason
Detective D.J. Able is determined to bring Caprice to his knees. Backed by his partner, Bryan Stokes, Able and his team are out for justice, and retribution for the loss of one of their own. When push comes to shove, Able discovers that even the best laid plans sometimes go astray, and the men end up in a fight for their very lives.

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*Jude Mason - Come, explore with me…if you dare*
Website: Newsletter: join my mailing list, email me: jude.mason AT

*Jenna Byrnes - Page scorching erotic romance*
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Friday, April 16, 2010

... Would it not read as sweet ...

It's rather odd, but I haven't ever really had a problem coming up with titles. It's just one of my quirks.

Take Diggin' Up Bones for example. I first heard Alisa talking to me, whispering that Zach Bradford was a part-time archeologist and full-time pain in the ass. That's all I had beyond knowing that the title would be Diggin' Up Bones.

Then there was the story I wrote as part of a multi-author anthology. I knew that I wanted to have the ability for a character to go back in time and re-do life the way it should have been. The title – The Life Not Lived.

I also knew before I started writing it that my first ever historical was going to be called Her Majesty's Maiden and feature Queen Elizabeth I of England and her lover. (This story will be coming out later in 2010 from Phaze)

When I wanted to write a bit of a different take on the vampire genre, I created a virus that blinded them, making the apex predators a little bit vulnerable. They were also highly kinky, and in to playing with humans. Blending the two together, they use humans as a seeing-eye-dog fill in. The title perfectly fits. Where the Blind Leads.

When I decided to do a sequel and publish the two stories together under one title, I played around with the concept again, and made a human male who was submissive become infected with the vampire virus. He was turning blind, and into a vampire. Yet he is still a sub. The title for the sequel is Leading The Blind. (They are published together as Blood Slave).

Really … I could go on and on …

Unfortunately, I do have problems coming up with stories to fit all of the titles I have come up with.

Such as …

Trouble or Nothing

Resurrecting Memories

Beyond the Dance

… and many more …

Because I tend to be fairly quirky about titles, I have been asked several times by friends for title suggestions.

Among these has been D Musgrave's:

Continuing Education

Sexual Healing
(for his series about a sexual surrogate psychiatrist)

Both of which you can find on Phaze

Thursday, April 15, 2010

I Corinthians 13.13

by Ashley Lister

Several years ago I was on the phone to a publisher. I’d sent him an email query about a series of vampire stories. He was phoning up to ask how I expected to fit all three of the proposed stories I’d sent into one novel.

It was a frustrating conversation. In my email I’d explicitly stated that it was to be a trilogy of stories. The idea was about three sisters who each battle against vampires. The format was going to be one novel for the story of each sister. But, either I hadn’t explained it very well, or he was thicker than shit in the neck of a bottle. Either way, there had been a miscommunication.

Anyway, after patiently explaining the idea to the publisher the conversation ended with an agreement that I’d write three separate books entitled The BloodLust Chronicles. Each ‘chronicle’ would be succeeded by the name of the central character. And, because vampires are the embodiment of irreligiousness, I thought it would be appropriate to give my heroines names that were vaguely biblical. Which is where I came up with the names: Faith, Hope and Charity.

I have to admit, I’m not really into reading bibles. I’d heard the words faith, hope and charity bandied around previously, usually by those people who try to sell religion from door to door. I was fairly convinced that the words faith, hope and charity appeared somewhere in the bible, and so I asked my assistant (Mr Google) to help me find the exact quote.

I Corinthians 13.13
(King James Bible) And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

I liked this. It almost read like a tagline from a Hollywood blockbuster, particularly with that final declaration: the greatest of these is charity. I could imagine the words being read out by one of those baritone-voice narrators at the cinema’s trailers.

Content with this development, I figured I would double check my source, just because I always like to cover my ass when it comes to anything bordering on legitimate research. I opened up my personal copy of the New Testament Millennium Edition and flicked to I Corinthians 13.13.

I have to admit this is not genuinely my own bible. According to the stamp inside the front cover it belongs to some guy called Gideon. However, if he’s going to be dumb enough to leave his bible in the drawer of a hotel room’s bedside cabinet, he can’t expect to find it waiting for him when he checks back in.
I was stunned to discover that the words inside the Millennium Edition were different to what I’d found online.

I Corinthians 13.13
(Millennium Edition) And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

My first reaction was to panic. Admittedly, the difference in the opening few words was acceptable. This new version actually made a little more sense than the King James version. But they’d changed the name charity to love!

Obviously I couldn’t have a central character named ‘Love.’ That would be stupid. Unless her parents had been hippies, or unusually cruel, I knew the name ‘Love’ wouldn’t be appropriate.

Readers don’t like to suspend their disbelief too far. I knew I could create a world where vampires exist, and fill it with exciting, erotic scenes. But making out that one of the main characters had suffered an entire existence labouring with the name ‘Love’ would push the bullshit needle beyond critical.

As it transpires, the bible is occasionally updated. The King James version was commissioned in 1604 and completed in 1611 (although the first version to bear the words KINGS JAMES VERSION didn’t come about until 1884). As the English language changes (which all languages are wont to do) some of the meanings within the bible become obscure and obfuscated. Consequently, occasional modifications are made so that the message of the good book remains clear to the modern reader. (Providing they don’t accidentally leave a copy of their bible in a hotel room).

This was evinced to me by the subtle change of the word charity to the more wholesome and admirable trait of love. It didn’t appease my situation any, but it did help me understand what was happening with my character names.

Long story short: I went with the King James version. The Bible is a very useful book for many reasons, the main one being readers can cherry-pick what they want from it and ignore the versions that disagree with their way of thinking. I figured that a lot of wars have been fought by this process so there wouldn’t be any great harm in using it to complete a trilogy of book titles. And I went on to write, The BloodLust Chronicles: Faith, The BloodLust Chronicles: Hope, and The BloodLust Chronicles: Charity.