RAZORED ZEN: November 2010

Monday, November 29, 2010

Renaissance Fair Weekend

Lana and I went to the local Renaissance Fair yesterday, and the weather was gorgeous. The Fair is held outside Hammond, Louisiana, out in the woods. We attended the jousting and the “Birds of Prey” demonstration. Lana got some great bird photos and put some up over at her blog. We also watched a few of the comedy shows and browsed the shops. Other than food and drinks, we only bought one thing this year, a wind driven item for our deck. I admired the leather tankards but at 95 bucks a piece I decided to pass. I already have a drinking horn from a previous year.

Last year they didn’t hold the jousting on the day we went because it had rained so much the field was a lake of mud. I was glad to see it this year, and, besides being hilarious, our knight won! Well, his name was “Victor” after all.

The birds of prey demonstration was awesome, as it has been every time I’ve seen it. I even ran into a few old friends, including Stephan, who looked the part of a wandering Celt. Lana and I did not really dress up, although I wore my leather hat and the long coat you see me sporting in my profile pic. I felt a bit like a time traveller from the 1880s. I did admire the costumes though, including swordsmen and travelling minstrels and a host of either elves or Vulcans. It’s the ears, you know. And I always pick up interesting tidbits of renaissance lore, including this year a lesson in the types of siege weapons used in medieval times.

If you’ve never been to a Ren Fair, then get ye olde self to the next one you hear about. They’re well worth the tickets and the trip. Eat, Drink and be Merry. For tomorrow we return to the real world.
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Friday, November 26, 2010

Where Words Get Their Power, at Novel Spaces

I'm posting over at Novel Spaces today on the topic of Where Words Get Their Power. I hope you'll drop by for a read.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends. Even if you don't officially celebrate it today, I wish you thanksgiving anyway.

No need to comment on this post. Enjoy time with the family; enjoy good food. Maybe some good reading or some football. I plan to do those very things.

I won't be around for a couple of days. Josh is coming up to see me tomorrow for our Thanksgiving. I'm looking forward to that.

Rock on!
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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Lushness Revisited

Language is such a weak medium at times. In my last post I spoke about wanting lushness in what I read, but I don’t think I conveyed exactly what I meant. At least one commenter mentioned enjoying the “spare” prose of Hemingway, and Hemingway is actually a favorite of mine. How could I enjoy “lushness” and still enjoy Hemingway? It’s because lushness in my mind has nothing to do with wordiness. Lushness gives me sensory details, gives me emotional intensity, and gives me images.

Consider, from A Farewell to Arms, “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

Or:, from The Short Stories, “They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard. All the shutters of the hospital were nailed shut. One of the ministers was sick with typhoid. Two soldiers carried him downstairs and out into the rain. They tried to hold him up against the wall but he lay down in a puddle of water. The other five stood very quietly against the wall. Finally, the officer told the soldiers it was no good trying to make him stand up. When they fired the first volley he was sitting down in the water with his head on his knees.”

Though Hemingway is generally considered to write “spare” prose, these scenes of his are “lush” to me. Image piles upon image. I can see these scenes with absolutely clarity. I can feel myself inhabiting them. And though more subtle than in the “tiger” scenes I posted last time, there is an underlying current of powerful emotion singing through these words.

In contrast, here’s a scene from John Cheever that I found in Peter Elbow’s Writing With Power. “We drank in the garden. It was a spring day—one of those green-gold Sundays that excite our incredulity. Everything was blooming, opening, burgeoning. There was more than one could see—prismatic lights, prismatic smells, something that sets one’s teeth on edge with pleasure—but it was the shadow that was most mysterious and exciting, the light one could not define. We sat under a big maple, its leaves not yet fully formed but formed enough to hold the light, and it was astounding in its beauty, and seemed not like a single tree but one of a million, a link in a long train of leafy trees beginning in childhood.”

With the Cheever piece, I’m OK with “garden” and “spring day,” and then I’m lost all the way until “big maple.” Then I’m lost again. What is a “green-gold Sunday?” Why tell us there “was more than one could see.” Of course, there was. There always is. The writer needs to give us enough sensory details to help us create what is there. Cheever doesn’t even try. He confounds us with the overuse and misuse of “prismatic.” I can vaguely picture prismatic lights, but prismatic “smells!” And take “astounding in its beauty?” How much of a lame copout is that? This piece, although wordy, is the opposite of lush. It’s almost lifeless.

So, if lush isn’t the right word for what I want in a scene, that is sensory detail, emotion, and images, what is the right word?
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Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Exotic and the Lush

Every once in a while I’m forcible reminded in my reading that I prefer lush prose with at least a hint of the exotic over sparse prose that reveals the mundane. The exotic settings is one of the reasons why I love fantasy, and I often find a similar sense of the exotic in historical fiction. I’m also realizing, however, that part of the exotic feel that I look for can be created with lush prose that immerses me in the sensory world of the story.

Consider the book I’m reading now, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Tiger, which is set in India in 1799. The book is well written and the events are interesting. I’m following the story fine, although it is a bit slow so far. But while I was expecting to really immerse myself in the exotic sights and smells of old India, I’m actually finding the prose to be rather flat at times. I’m going to give an example below. These two brief descriptions feature tigers in a scene where an Indian Sultan is about to have two men executed for treason. One of the two will be fed to the tigers afterward.

“The six tigers, restless because they had been denied their midday meal of freshly slaughtered goat meat, glared with yellow eyes from the courtyard’s edges.” And: “One of the six chained tigers stirred at the smell of blood and padded forward until its chain stretched to its full length and so held it back. The beast growled, then settled down to watch the second man die.”

There’s nothing wrong with these descriptions. They adequately place us in the scene. They are perfectly well written. The problem, for me, is that they 1) don’t “immerse” me in the exotic sensory world where these tigers live, and 2) don’t convince me that the tigers are intensely dangerous predators. I want the author to give me that sensory experience. The beasts are “restless,” the author says. Are they prowling about? Do the chains clink and rattle as they stalk? How do their hides ripple with muscle? How do their growls rumble? Do we see their fangs? And I want to feel as if those chains are only “barely” adequate to hold them. I want to feel their threat.

As bizarre as it is for a complete unknown such as myself to dare rewrite the prose of the hugely successful Bernard Cornwell, I’m going to do so simply to illustrate what “I” want from my reading.

Six tigers in gleaming chains, denied their midday meal of freshly slaughtered goat, rose restlessly to their feet at the courtyard’s edges. Muscles rippled under the striped hides and low growls rumbled the hot, still air. Yellow eyes glared as they stalked toward the line of watchers. The chain links rattled, tautened, strained, and only at the moment when the metal seemed destined to fail did the beasts turn away from the men.

And:

One tiger snarled at the smell of blood, its lips curling back over the white glisten of its incisors. It tested its chains, set the steel to clanking, then slowly settled onto its belly to watch the second man die.

Writing fiction is such an art rather than a science. If you strive for a high level of intensity, some readers will call you “over the top” and reject you. And you certainly can’t make every scene in a story equally intense or the reader won’t be able to stay with you. Bernard Cornwell is a very well known writer and I’m not claiming in any way that I’m better than he is. For all I know, he consciously made a decision to understate the tiger scene, perhaps to contrast with something that comes later, or perhaps just because he felt his readers would prefer it. I’m not one of his readers; this is the first work I’ve read by him. “This” reader, though, was hoping for a little more lushness and exotica. Hey, it's "tigers" for goodness sake. I'd like to think they might eat me.
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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Discount Noir, and Bill Crider

Our blog colleague, Patti Abbott, is trying to get the news out about the fabulous collection called Discount Noir, which contains stories by Ed Gorman, Bill Crider, and James Reasoner, along with many other fine writers. In the interest of helping Patti spread the word, I’m hosting Bill Crider on my blog today with a short piece about his story in the collection, entitled “Their Fancies Lightly Turned.” Here’s……Bill.

When Patti Abbott asked me to write a story for Discount Noir, the first thing I thought of was a story I’d done a few years ago for Damn Near Dead. People often ask me if I ever intend to do anything more with the characters in that story, so I thought this would be a good chance to revisit a couple of them named Royce and Burl. They’re fun to write about, and I decided to give a little backstory about their meth dealing or something along those lines. Since the new story was to involve a big discount store, the next thing that occurred to me was that those places really have a problem with characters like Royce and Burl because those kinds of stores are where guys like them try to pick up some of their makings. After that, it was smooth sailing. I just put my characters in motion and let them carry the story through to the end. When I finished and looked it over, I liked the way it worked. It seemed to me to be a story about the kind of thing that could happen, or maybe does happen every now and then. I’d say more, but then this comment would wind up being longer than the story. Better for people to buy the book, read the story, and find out more for themselves.


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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Werewolves of the Ozarks

I had a long convoluted dream last night. A male friend of mine had gotten a divorce and had not fought for custody of his little four-year-old boy even though his wife was a rather well known crazy woman. She was known to be especially cruel to dogs and had been reported tormenting them in public numerous times. I saw some visuals of this in the dream.

My friend wouldn't talk to me about why he didn't fight for custody, but Lana kind of fell in love with the little child and was determined to save him from the awful mother. Lana found out that the woman had grown up in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas and she decided to travel up there to find the family and see what she could learn. Naturally, I went along.

We drove deep into the mountains and at one point drove over this small wooden bridge above a deep green pool of water. I saw two different women swimming in the pool, swimming under the water in long graceful strokes. One had blond hair in a braid all the way to her feet. The other was older and was wearing a pink bathing cap.

We continued on our way as it began to rain and the road turned to mud. Dark green woods grew on either side of us, with limbs at times brushing the car. We knew the family we sought lived near the highest point of the mountain. Finally, the road became impassible through a combination of narrowing, mud, and fallen trees and we stopped. It was growing dark and neither of us was very comfortable with spending the night in the woods here.

Then three children showed up. There were two boys and a little girl. All were around the age of 8 or 9. The rain had stopped temporarily and they set out to guide us the rest of the way to the family's house. We reached it and went inside just as the rain came again and a storm wind began to blow. I'd expected a kind of hovel but the house was very nice on the inside and they even had internet service. However, the parents were away. The kids just told us to make ourselves to home and wait.

Lana got on the internet and began researching some stuff. The kids were in and out and the little girl seemed to have taken a fancy to us. She hung around quite a bit. She told us the adults were all in the village getting ready for the ritual, which I assumed was some relgious festival.

The two young boys came in at one point and were whispering with the girl and it was while I was overhearing stuff they said that I put the whole thing together. We had stumbled into a clan of werewolves. I went quickly to Lana and told her that we needed to leave. But we'd come to the house through a convoluted path through the trees and didn't know if we could find our way back. Lana tried to contact 911 through the internet but right about then the electricity failed. I turned at at the sound of whispers and saw dark blotches against the wall that I knew to be the two little boys. Their eyes glowed green, like cat's eyes. Or those of werewolves.

I realized then why my friend had not fought for custody of his child. He must have known the boy would be a werewolf too. And I was kind of wishing he would have told us.

I woke up then, and regretted that. I wanted to see how in the world we were going to get out of this mess, and I wanted to find out more. I guess I'll have to write the story to see how it turns out.
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Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Demon Visitor

I've posted more about sleep phenomena over at Novel Spaces. This time I'm talking about a very frightening experience I had. I hope you can stop by.

In other news, G has a review of my short story collection, Bitter Steel up over at his blog. Thanks, man!



Here's a book I'll be buying soon:



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Monday, November 08, 2010

Stereotyped Characters

I’m enjoying AMC’s series, The Walking Dead, but last night’s episode took its first misstep for me. It wasn’t enough of a misstep to make me abandon the series, but it will make me a little more cautious about the show. That misstep was introducing a standard-issue racist character. Let me see, the character is big, white, southern, male, lacks self-control, loves guns and violence, hates folks that he addresses with the “N” word, and is crude to women. Are there people who meet that stereotype? Probably. There are people who meet just about every stereotype. But I consider it a problem in a TV show, or in literature, when you can hear the first words out of a character’s mouth and instantly deduce everything about them.

The stereotypes in Avatar were a problem for me with that movie, especially the blue-skinned “Native American Noble Savages.” And that movie had its share of human racists too, the main one being the military commander, who was big, white, apparently southern, male, and in love with guns and violence.

This is not to say that written fiction never does this sort of thing. I like to read pulp stories and you can sure find the stereotypes there, inscrutable and evil “Orientals,” oily and criminal “Italians,” murderous heathen “Indians,” simple obsequious “darkies,” etc. Or you can read a certain brand of modern thrillers with their stereotyped Nazis and Islamic terrorists.

To a certain extent, I can tolerate stereotypes, although much less with main characters than with secondary characters. I understand that writers have to sketch some secondary characters quickly in order to get on with the plot, and stereotypes let the reader do a lot of the work of defining such characters. I can tolerate stereotypes that appear in fiction from a time period like the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. I can also tolerate stereotypes better if they are neither hateful nor overly positive. I’m mostly OK with the bookish librarian, the absent-minded professor, the football jock, the overly bright kid, but my patience quickly wears thin with the Noble Savages, the white racists, and the black crack dealers.

I believe I’m seeing fewer of the blatant stereotypes in both movies and literature these days, and I’m glad for that. I don’t see as many black urban youth gangbanger crack dealers on TV as I once did. I don’t see as many weak women victims who can’t outrun their male tormenters even though the villains are “walking.”

But certain stereotypes still seem pretty common, and the white male, southern, gun lover racist one is particularly prevalent. I will admit that I’m probably sensitized to this one in particular because I’m a white southern male who owns guns. However, I’m not very big, not crude to women, and though I dislike plenty of people I dislike them on their own merits or lack thereof and not on the color of their skin.

Am I right that the white male southern racist seems a particularly common stereotype today, or am I only noticing it more because of who I am? Am I right that many other blatant stereotypes are decreasing in entertainment? What other blatant ones are left? Any examples?

And, in other news, David J. West has a kind review of Swords of Talera up over at his blog. Thanks, David. Glad you enjoyed.
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Friday, November 05, 2010

The Week That Never Was

This week has gotten away from me. It's preregistration time at Xavier so we've been pretty busy, and yesterday was complicated by having the internet out much of the day at work, as well as the electricity and elevators out for about half the day. Then there was the test I gave on Wednesday in Psychopharmacology, and the one I give in 45 minutes in Physiological Psychology. And, oh yeah, there was that big research proposal from Pharmacy that I had to evaluate. I am ready for the weekend.

I know some of you are NANOing and have probably written thousands of words this week. I managed a modicum of progress on a story called "Twenty-Four Mile Bridge," which is going through its final polishing now. And I temporarily halted work on another tale, "Scritch, Scritch, Scritch," because I need to rethink the ending.

On Tuesday I stumbled upon a review for an anthology called Dark Terrors, which I had a story in quite a few years ago. The reviewer indicated that he liked the anthology except for two stories. Yes, you guessed it, my own "A Splatter of Black" was one of the two he didn't like. The very next day, though, I got a message on Facebook from someone who told me how much they did like my offering in Hint Fiction. There you have the writing life. Full circle from hell to heaven in less than 24 hours.

I've got the ideas for several blog posts about writing from reading Peter Elbow's Writing With Power, and perhaps this weekend I'll be able to develop at least one of them. Gotta grade that test first, though. Sigh!

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Monday, November 01, 2010

The Walking Dead, and Friends

I watched the premier of AMCs new series The Walking Dead last night and was quite taken with it. A sheriff’s deputy is shot in the line of duty, then wakes up in a hospital after the zombie plague has swept through. He finds a lot of dead bodies, some half eaten, and soon comes upon a zombie who is missing her bottom half. That really teaches him that something has changed in his world. He finds a few other normals eventually, though, and learns that Atlanta is supposed to be a haven for the living. He goes there, and you can probably guess what happens. I believe this is supposed to come on every Sunday night and I’m going to make a concerted effort to catch it. I can’t say that about many new series. Let me say, though, that it's pretty graphic if you are squeamish.

Something else I did over the weekend is add a new shelf called “Friendsbooks” to Goodreads. I was amazed when I found 168 books on that shelf. I have 50 to 60 other books by friends on my TBR piles. My friends appear to be a prolific bunch. If you are my friend and have written a book, but you’re wondering why I have not read it or perhaps not purchased it, let me give you some possible reasons.

First, some of my friends write erotica and I almost never read erotica. I have only 4 out of 3363 books on my Goodreads shelves that are erotica. Two of those are by friends and are short. I don’t mind having erotic elements or sexual elements in my fiction, but if the ‘primary’ purpose of the work is the erotic elements then I probably won’t be strongly attracted to it. Second, I loved YA fiction when I was young but only rarely read it now, especially if it is targeted at “tweens.” I just generally don’t have anything in common with the characters. However, except for Harry Potter, every YA work I’ve read in the past few years has been by friends.

Third, I hardly ever read straight mystery, although I read noir fiction and some historical mysteries. Fourth, I hardly ever read mainstream fiction, and when I read literary fiction it's most often older material that I feel I ought to read, like Moby Dick or The Metamorphosis. Fifth, I hardly ever read romance. I don’t even have a category for that since the only romance fiction I’ve ever read would also count as historical fiction. Sixth, I very rarely read paranormal or urban fantasy. I respect the writers of erotica, YA, mystery, romance, urban fantasy, and mainstream/literary fiction, but as a reader I tend not to automatically pick up such books to read myself. I do have quite a few such books on my shelves from friends, and I probably will read them eventually.

What do I read, you ask? That list is longer than what I don’t read. Science fiction, fantasy, magic realism/surrealism, horror, thriller, westerns, science, works on writing, animals and nature, astronomy and physics, psychology, poetry, noir, pulp-oriented, military, history, historical fiction, football, and animal fiction.

Finally, today is official release date for Hint Fiction. It even got a good review in the New Yorker, so if you’d like a copy, a link is below.

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