Monday, April 30, 2007

Reality is a Dish Best Served in Moderation

We camped out again in the back yard last night. Once again it was perfect. The whippoorwills called from dusk till dawn. There were thin wisps of fog.

I awoke a few times, lay looking up through the tent's mesh at a sky given texture by the bright moon. At one point I realised that directly above me loomed a viking warrior with a horned helm and a sword upraised in one fist. By the light of morning he had transformed into a tree. Birds roosted on his blade.

Fiction is an act of transformation. It is an act of will imposed upon the mundane reality of black words on a white page. Trees become ships, become worlds, become stars. And it's not just the writer who imposes these visions. The reader transforms the work further, in ways the writer had never forseen, or intended.

At the heart of our job as writers is to see the world anew, to transform it and let our readers transform it further. But to do so we may have to shake up our own perceptions. We may have to look at reality under a new light. We have to let the moon show us vikings where daylight showed us only trees.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Indulging the Inner Child

Well, having decided, and upon the advice of friends (see comments to yesterday's post), to indulge my inner child, Lana and I camped out in our back yard last night. We pitched our tent behind and to the right of where the fire bowl is in the accompanying picture. We had a fire first, of course. And the weather was so nice that we left off the tent cover so that both sides, the roof, and most of the back were open to the sky. There's a mesh, of course, to keep out the mosquitoes.

It was perfect sleeping weather, just cool enough to need a light blanket so that we could feel all cuddly warm, but with only a little wind. Camp cots were our one concession to semi-adulthood. These are wire mesh cots that we bought, and slept on, for several months during the Katrina evacuation. They fit our tent perfectly and, young as my inner child might be, his outer hips are still those of a 48 year old man and hurt when he has to sleep on the ground.

The whippoorwills serenaded us all night, and there were several other night birds in action, as well as a number of tree frogs. I was hoping to hear coyotes howling but they didn't seem to be indulging their inner wolf last night. I heard a variety of dogs bark, and I figured that many of those barks were directed at wild things passing through in the woods. I heard a few rustlings in our own woods but didn't catch a glimpse of anything.

All in all, a night well spent. I'm thinking of doing it again tonight.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

My Inner Child

I know writers talk about their inner child at times, but apparently I really do have one. And he's got an ear infection.

About two weeks ago the ear canal of my right ear became swollen and very painful. I thought I'd gotten bit by an insect so I waited for the swelling to go down. (Of course, I had images of some insect having laid eggs "in" my ear and that the larva would soon start burrowing out through my brain.) After about three days the ear was still swollen so I decided to see a doctor the next day. Miraculously, the swelling was way down by the time I awoke the next morning and I thought all was well.

The following weekend my ear canal swoll up again, and this time I started having weird feelings of pressure inside my ears and a steady ringing. I did go to the doctor this time, and his conclusion? I have the kind of ear infection that kids get. He said, "it does happen occassionally in adults," but I could see he didn't find that very common. He gave me some antibiotics and they seem to be working.

My question is this. Why is my inner child getting an ear infection now? Could it be that I haven't listened to him enough lately? Have I been too "grown up" of late, what with grading on my final exams and paying my bills?

Screw grading tests or writing. I think I'm going to go play outside.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

One Project Down, Many to Go

Well, the Morrell article is done. I'll email it in today or tomorrow. It's due on the 27th. But today I set up folders (both physical and on my computer desktop) for four of the six summer projects that I have planned. I know I won't get all six of these finished in a single summer, but if I get organized, and keep decent notes as I work on them, it will make the long-term goal of finishing them all easier. I'd thought I was going to have a fairly leisurely summer, but some good stuff has dropped into my lap so it won't be leisure but it should be fun. With the deadlines I have, at least I will be able to stagger the work, writing on one project while reading for another. And since I won't be teaching I'll be able to split my day up, using mornings for one project and afternoons for another. At least that is the plan now, although I often find once I get into a project that it begins to consume me and I work mornings and afternoons on the same thing. I forgive myself for that. I do like to be organized, but there's no sense being strict about it. ;)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Plot Thickens

At one time, David Morrell says, he was taught that there are five types of plots:

1) Human against Human. 2) Human against Nature. 3) Human against himself/herself. 4) Human against Society. 5) Human against God.

Morrell thinks there's only one, and it goes like this: Somebody wants something, and somebody else wants to stop them from getting it. This is conflict, which is at the core of plot. But for a story, Morrell says, you also have to have "why." You have to know the motivations of the antagonists.

Sounds pretty simple when you put it that way.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

David Morrell Talks About Hollywood

One chapter of Morrell's writing book is on his experiences in Hollywood. He mentions a certain producer (not by name) who invited him to sit in on his office day to see what it was like. It consisted mostly of not taking people's calls, then calling someone else to see if they knew what the caller may have wanted.

Apparently in Hollywood, the studio executives almost never actually read a book. They read the "coverage," which is a 1 to 2 page summary of the book done by someone other than the writer. Morrell told of a studio exec who put his arm around Pat Conroy one time and told him what a great writer he was. "The coverage on your book moved me to tears," the Exec said.

Morrell's primary advice? Be careful as a newbie writer dealing with Hollywood or they will eat you alive.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Book Sale

The St. Tammany Parish Library book sale started this weekend. I went. I saw. I failed to conquer my urge to spend. I like to pick up hardback copies of books that I really love at such sales, and this time I found hardback copies of Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard and Peter Straub's Houses Without Doors. I also found a hardback copy of Stephen Gallagher's Red, Red Robin. I've liked Gallagher for a long time but he's a British author and I almost never see his books on the shelves of bookstores here in the States. I'd buy 'em new if I did because he's also a very nice guy.

I've heard some good stuff about Michael Connelly so I picked up something by him called Void Moon. If I like it I'll buy some more of his stuff new. I also picked up a couple of Ed McBain's books of the 87th Precinct, some of the earlier ones in the series. I've only read one book by him but I really liked it. I got some older David Morrell thrillers, and a hardback copy of Binary by John Lange, who is really Michael Crichton before he got big.

Also arriving today, were copies I'd ordered of David Morrell's Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, and as I delve into this I'll be posting more about it, and a collection of literary essays by Robert Reginald called Xenograffiti.

And now? Time to get reading.

Friday, April 20, 2007

What Were They Thinking

Here's a couple of those little experiences that teachers love so much. First, I gave a test yesterday. One student finished the test and left after about 25 minutes, then returned 20 minutes after that. Here's a transcript of the conversation that followed.

Student: "Was there a question on the test about Freud's stages?"

Me: "Yes."

Student: "I talked to some of the other students and I don't think I answered that one."

Me: "Sorry."

Student: "Well, can I see my test to see if I did?"

Me: "OK."

Student (after seeing that her answer for the question was left blank.) "See, I didn't answer this one."

Me: "Sorry."

Student: "Well is there anything I can do? I know the answer?"

Me: "Well I can't let you answer it now. The only reason you realized you didn't answer it was because you talked to other students who finished the test."

Student: "But I promise I know it."

Me: "You realize that I can't let people leave a test, talk to other students who have finished the same test, then come back in and answer questions they left blank?"

Student: "I guess."

Me: "Sorry."

Second experience: About a month ago a student who had graduated several years earlier emailed me to ask for a letter of recommendation for graduate school. After looking over her records I found that she'd had only one class with me, barely passed it with the lowest "C" possible, missed nearly a quarter of the class periods, failed to hand in anything on time, and that her transcript showed that she'd performed about the same way in most of her other classes. I wrote back to say that I was sorry but that "I really cannot write a positive letter for you." I told her to try some of her music professors from here since her grades were better in those classes. I heard nothing back until a phone mail message yesterday: "Dr. Gramlich, I'm sending you that recommendation form for me that we talked about. Please fill it out for me."

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Haphazard Posting

It's a bit hard to post today. I'm still thinking of the Virginia Tech shootings, still thinking of my own students, my own classes. I'm thinking of a student years ago who told me, "Doc, you know I like you. If I ever leave a message on your phone not to come to work someday, you should really stay home that day."

Anyway, my posting may start to be a bit haphazard for the next couple of weeks. I give a test on Thursday and then another very big one next week. The week after that begins our final exams, and I still need to get the David Morrell article done. It's coming along well, but I'm a little tired. And set to get more tired.

"Stay frosty," as they say.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Forgetfulness and Confusion

Yesterday, as part of my work on the David Morrell article, I did a detail scan on First Blood and a few others of Morrell's books that I read years ago. First Blood is, of course, the book in which Rambo first appeared. I enjoyed that book when I read it back in the late 70s, but it's amazing, although not unexpected, how many details that I'd forgotten. Part of the source of my forgetfulnes of the book is, naturally, the movie made from the book starring Sylvester Stallone. Here are some things I'd forgotten.

1. Rambo's first name is never given in the book. It is in the movie that we get "John. J."

2. Rambo is taken out of town "twice" by the sheriff and returns a third time before all the crap hits the fan, thus making him somewhat less sympathetic.

3. Rambo does not escape from the police station with a knife in the book.

4. Rambo was raised Catholic.

5. Rambo's mother died of cancer when he was young, and his father was an abusive alcoholic. Rambo shot his father at one time with a bow and arrow.

6. Rambo worked in a garage before joining the military.

7. Rambo gets clothes from some moonshiners in the book.

8. Rambo kills a lot more people in the book.

Interesting how the memory works. Or, fails to work.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


The whippoorwill is a night bird, although sometimes you hear them in late evening. They nest in wooded places and are seldom seen. Thus the picture, which was taken from our deck of the evening woods around our place.

I grew up in the country in Arkansas and grew to love the sound of whippoorwills. It's a lonely sound; it makes you ache. But it touches you. In the last couple of evenings I've begun to hear whippoorwills around my house in Abita Springs, and the memories and feelings aroused by the bird's call have come surging back. I had been lamenting to Lana only a few weeks before that I'd not heard the whippoorwills and that I missed them. I'm listening each night for them now. I hope they will stay.

The name of the wipoorwill comes from the sound of its call, although my mom always told me that the bird wasn't saying "whip poor will" but said instead, "Chick fell out of the willow." That's always how I hear it.

The whippoorwill is supposed to be able to sense a soul departing after death, and that's why they call. Lovecraft used them for this purpose in some of his stories. So did August Derleth. I don't know about that. I know only that their sound renews my soul. It lets me know I'm alive.

Friday, April 13, 2007

A Plethora of Titles

I was looking on Amazon at books on "Writing" and was amazed at the huge variety of titles available. It seems like writing is a popular topic. Are there really that many people who want to be writers? Or do folks who want to write just read a lot of tip books? I wonder if there are any good "titles" left unused. I know I thought I had quite a few different writing related books but there's no chance I'm ever going to catch up with what's available. So, those of you who read such works, what are the best ones out there. Personally, two books that I've found really helpful to me are William Zinsser's On Writing Well and Lawrence Block's Telling Lies for Fun & Profit. I also have King's On Writing, and Orson Scott Card's book on Writing SF and Fantasy, both of which had some good stuff in them.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Dialogue Tags

Dave Hardy commented on this blog the other day about dialogue tags, so I thought I might say a few things about them from my perspective.

As a reader, the most important thing to me is not to be confused about who is talking and when. Even if there are only two people in a scene, I'll get lost after half a page of dialogue without tags unless the speech of the two individuals is dramatically distinct. I know for myself (and I suspect it is true for most readers), the dialogue tags largely become invisible to me, especially if it is the ubiquitous "said." Thus, as a reader, I'd probably prefer the writer to err on the side of more tags rather than fewer.

As a writer, I actually tend to use dialogue tags for three purposes. The major purpose is to make sure the reader knows who is talking. However, dialogue tags can also slow the pace of a scene, which is just what you want in some situations. Tags can also change the, for want of a better term, "music" of a scene. I don't know why, but to me dialogue tags, particularly things like "I told him" or "he responded," add a bit of gravity to a scene when I read it out loud. This may just have to do with the slowing of the pace. It's clearly a "sound" effect for me, though.

Anyway, here's another slice of that story I posted a piece of yesterday, but this is almost solely dialogue. This is how I identified the speakers in this piece, although there are certainly other, perhaps better, ways of doing it.


Chalathar was waiting for us, leaning on a marble balustrade. Behind him loafed three rough looking characters.

“Been expecting you,” Chalathar said.

I arched an eyebrow.

“You are going up to see Kuurus, aren’t you?”

“We have to get through his guards first,” I said.

He nodded. “I know. I’ve brought some friends along for the fun.”

For a moment I studied his companions, hard-cases all. Two were men, the third a big Nokarran whose light gray fur was mottled with dark rosettes so that he resembled a snow leopard walking.

“Looks like you need a leash for ‘em,” I said.

The Nokarran smirked. Chalathar chuckled. “Then they couldn’t kill,” he replied.

Now it was my turn to nod. “Let’s make that happen, then,” I said, stalking past him up the steps.

Note: The last "said" certainly doesn't have to be there, but when I broke the sentence into two, giving me: "I stalked past him up the steps," it seemed more jarring and I thought it flowed better as one sentence with the "said" in there. Sometimes it's amazing how many little decisions we make each moment in writing.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Piece of the Action

Here's a little sample from something that I hope will be out soon.

The Vhichang sighed, reached up to rub at his slashed cheek. I glanced at him. His yellow eyes were hard. He hitched up his sword belt and drew a dagger into his left hand to give himself two blades to match mine. He started walking toward me.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” I told him.

“I took the gold,” he replied.

“A hard way to make a living,” I said.

“Aren’t they all.”

He lunged for me then, blades winking with light, his movements smooth and fluid, his technique nearly flawless. Nearly.

My rune-blade licked out, met his dagger, hacked it free of his hand. My rapier hooked up and inside his sword, driving it out of line with his body as his thrust brought him a little too close to me. I stepped into him, looping my arm around his, locking my elbow to catch his wrist and sword against my side where they were useless to him. I wrenched upward on the Vhichang’s arm, heard him grunt as his shoulder came out of its socket.

I lifted my other sword, the runes glimmering along its length as I brought it high. The Vhichang snarled, spat at my feet. I didn’t hold it against him, but I killed him anyway, hacking the blade down into the soft juncture where the shoulder met the neck. He sagged, collapsed against me with what sounded almost like a sigh, and I released my grip on him so that he fell at my boots.

The Ss’Korra had not moved. I saw him shiver, and tossed him the rapier I’d taken from him only moments before. He caught it reflexively, breathing hard, his green eyes skittering from side to side like minnows fleeing the approach of a shark.

“Tell me who hired you and I’ll let you live,” I said.

He groaned, and if it were possible his pupils dilated even more widely. “No!” he screamed, and threw himself toward me.

Our blades linked, slid together in a rasping burst of sparks. I stepped back and away. The Ss’Korra stood for a moment, then collapsed to his knees, dropping his sword in a clatter on the ground as his hands came up to try and stuff the pouring blood back into his chest. I turned away, heard the thud of his body on the stones as he fell the final distance onto his face and died.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Why Can't I Proofread

Sometimes I despair of my proofreading abilities, even though I suspect that I'm actually better than a lot of folks at it. In a piece I was rereading last night for the umpteenth time I discovered that I'd written the word "mediation" where I meant "meditation." How many times I passed over that one I'll never know.

Of course, if that was my only error I might be OK. But I discovered that one major character had different colored eyes in two different places, that I'd changed the eye color for a minor character at one point but failed to change it elsewhere, that I'd described one character's eyes as "jade-black,"(Uhm, hello, jade is typically green," and that I'd written army where I meant navy. Even so, minor errors, you say? But how many times have I been through this piece? A lot, I'll tell you.

And I guess I can also tell you, you'll never catch 'em all. I think sometimes of myself as a perfectionist. In reality I have to admit I'm not even close.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Manna From Heaven

I guess Easter is the appropriate time for manna from Heaven. I was off Thursday and Friday for Easter break and figured I'd get some sleep in. I didn't, or not as much as I'd planned anyway. Ended up writing for ten to twelve hours a day because of some nice projects that fell into my lap. It wasn't like I didn't have enough to do, but I already mentioned here that I'm going to take off this summer from teaching and these projects are coming at just the right time. We only have a few more weeks of school before summer is here. Anyway, my writing time is set for a while, but the end results should be pretty nice.

Sorry to be so cryptic about said projects, but I've learned not to talk about the "bird" until it's in my hand. It may be superstition, but as they say, things fall apart. The center cannot hold. Well, we'll see. I'm anchoring myself in now and will have to be torn up by the roots.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

From "Renderings"

Taking a little break from David Morrell's thrillers, I started reading a novella by James Sallis called Renderings. I have very little idea what's going on in the story, but I've never minded being lost with Sallis. The trail may not be cut neat and tidy and paved, but you know there'll be great vistas along the way and that you'll end up somewhere interesting.

The main character in Renderings is a writer, and at one point we hear the following thoughts:

"Walking in the hills today I thought how surprised our old professors would be at the way I write. Suckled on New Critics, they believed the writer a master manipulator, a kind of conjurer, every word and motion bent inexorably to the final effect. I believed it too, but when I began to write, from this side of the door, that all collapsed. The only way I could do it was by winging it; if I knew things ahead of time, I simply couldn't make myself write. From page to page, word to word, I never knew what would happen. I still don't."

Although this is a character speaking, I suspect strongly that this is the way Sallis himself works. Thus my comments about the meandering path. Of course, I think this approach to writing works better with Sallis's more literary fiction than it would for something like a genre action/thriller (without extensive rewriting). I can't, however, decide whether it is more of a comfort or an anxiety to work this way. It's actually comforting to not have to plot, to not worry over what happens next and what follows that, to just open a vein as they say. But it's also worrisome. Writing takes work, and what if you write yourself into a corner three/quarters of the way through a book? How much time and effort might you waste when a little forethought would have saved you?

Maybe there's a reason why Jim's work is mostly novella length. Maybe there's a reason why many of my favorite reads are on the shorter side of novel length. As a reader, I feel the passion, the exploration, the freedom that writer's such as Jim Sallis bring to their work. There's nothing mechanical, no place where you become aware that Screw A goes into Part B. The work grows around you, grows over you, as if you're a fallen log lying quietly in the forest as the seasons pass.

Friday, April 06, 2007

A Blog Dream

OK, this is a first. Last night I dreamed a blog entry. I was writing about dialogue, about how it can’t be realistic but must sound realistic. Realistic dialogue would be cluttered up with “uhms,” and “likes” and so on, and would meander around the point until your reader was firmly ensconced in their own dreams. Good written dialogue has to carry just a flavor of such realistic voice, but also needs to be crisp, non-cliché, and needs to advance the plot while simultaneously revealing character. Seems simple, doesn’t it?

Of course, my dream wasn’t quite as succinct as what I’ve written above, and was full of asides that mostly make no logical sense in the middle of the day. But there was one aside that feels as if it might deserve greater attention. For the dream post, I’d developed a color scheme that represented different types of dialogue. Dialogue that meandered, was perhaps too realistic, was color coded “muddy brown.” Dialogue that screamed, “I am the bad guy,” was, of course, “black,” while dialogue that showed the good guy being good was “white.” Crisp dialogue was “red.” Non-cliché dialogue was “pink.” Dialogue that advanced the plot was “orange,” while dialogue that revealed character was “yellow.” Dialogue that did all four of the latter things well was rainbow colored.

In the dream, this seemed a great insight, although in the light of day I see that it’s tremendously complicated and would be very difficult to put into practice. I may try something like it on a story of mine sometime just as an exercise. Any time I can keep myself thinking about the purposes of written dialogue I think it helps.

In thinking about where this dream came from, I think I’ve figured out a possible genesis. Remember the David Morrell story I posted about a couple of days ago? It was “Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity.” The painter in that story had color-coded emotions. I know this resonated with me, and somewhere in my unconscious it’s been ricocheting around ever since. Funny how that works.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

David Morrell, an Update on Work

Well, I'm deep into the reading for my David Morrell article. I've read quite a bit of his stuff before but have missed some of his newer stuff. I just finished Creepers, and his short story collection Black Evening. I also read his 1983 children's book, The Hundred-Year Christmas, and I'm about a third of the way through his thriller, The Covenant of the Flame. Creepers was a very fast read, about the new breed of urban explorers, but I enjoyed his short stories most. He included helpful biographical information throughout the collection and that is really beneficial. Since he and I are both members of HWA, I emailed him in hopes of being able to ask him some questions. So far no response, but it's only been a few days.

Nothing profound to add today, just an update on work.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Rain Plummetted, from Lucas's Challenge

The rain plummeted to the ground like tiny meteorites.

Correction, Joe thought. Those drops weren't tiny to the beings who lived in his back yard, the beings he watched through night-vision goggles every evening from his window while he sat in his frigging wheelchair. Those bastards had ruined his life. It was because of them that he’d fallen and broken his back, and it didn’t matter that he’d been out in the yard drunk trying to smash them up with a shovel. They were on his land, his property. And now their constant digging was starting to undermine his house. Already one corner of his porch was sagging. He could picture the honeycomb of burrows that stretched, no doubt, beneath the entire structure of his home.

But now they were getting theirs. To those little monsters the raindrops would be huge, would be meteorites in reality as they plunged explosively to earth, tearing up the elaborate grass nests and filling the pin-hole tunnels in which the creatures lived. He was glad. He imagined the water working deeper and deeper into their black holes, gurgling toward them as they scrambled for a safety they would never find. He hoped every one of the bastards drowned.

Although he couldn’t move his legs, his arms worked and he shook a fist toward the window. “Die scum!” he shouted.

Then he laughed, and pushed away from the window, and rolled himself into his kitchen. He opened his fridge and took out a beer, popped the top and swallowed deeply of the golden liquid.

“Beautiful,” he murmured, as thunder rumbled and the rain started pounding harder upon the roof. “Those rain dancers I hired are sure doing their job. It’ll rain for days. There won’t be a dry spot anywhere around here for those monsters to hide out. Wash them out. Wash them right out of my hair.”

Joe laughed. The rain plummeted to the ground like tiny meteorites. In his yard, in the dark tunnels filling with mud, a race was dying. But one of them, rising on shaky legs in a last dry chamber, began, herself, to dance. Far away, outside the orbit of Mars, something stirred in the asteroid belt. Something stirred. Many things stirred.

A rain began to move toward the earth. A hard rain. A dry rain.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A Character's Words of Wisdom

In his short story, "Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity," David Morrell has a painter who is driven mad. But before he goes mad, while he's struggling to find his own vision, he records in his journal the following words:

"Need to free myself of convention. Need to void myself of aesthete politics, need to shit it out of me. To find what's never been painted. To feel instead of being told what to feel. To see instead of imitating what others have seen."

Good advice for any creative artist. Important, and damn near impossible. Also scary as all hell. I'd like to do this, but the courage is hard to come by. And the strength. And always I wonder. Maybe I just couldn't, even if I had the courage and the strength. Because after those come talent.

Monday, April 02, 2007

So That's How It's Done?

David Morrell has a story called "The Typewriter," about an egotistical but untalented writer who buys a "magic" typewriter. No matter what drivel the writer tries to type, the typewriter turns it into commercial bestselling drivel, and the writer gets rich. (Until things go wrong, of course.)

Stephen King later used a somewhat similar idea for his "Word Processor of the Gods," and even moreso in Tommyknockers." But Joe Lansdale reported in "Bestsellers Guaranteed" that you don't need magic to make you a bestseller. You just need the "organization." This group will guarantee their clients to make the bestseller list by controlling all the elements of production, advertising, and distribution, and all the writer has to do is a little favor for them. Talent is not required.

The head of the organization in "Bestsellers Guaranteed" admits that he knows nothing about books. But then, he's not selling books, he's "selling success."

Preposterous. Insane. Absolute nonsense. This couldn't possibly be how it works in the real world of publishing.