Saturday, March 29, 2014

Fits and Starts: Drips and Drabs

I've actually written a fair number of words lately but ultimately have not made a lot of "progress." I've started four different projects that would be novel length but all four fizzled out fairly quickly. One will eventually be finished; I just don't really feel like working on it right at the moment. Of the others, one will probably go nowhere because I was trying to capture an urban fantasy vibe and it just isn't my genre. I've tried it before and never been able to complete such a piece. I know what the problem is on the third work and it needs rewriting because my scenes were too much telling and not enough showing. That I can do but I've got to get the energy up and school has been pretty draining lately.

I did finish a couple of short stories and some memoir stuff. Some of that is submitted now and I hope for good results. I've been noting a decided lack of focus and discipline in myself of late. I know what I need to do but I'm not feeling too guilty about letting the work slide. Anyway, as I've learned over the years, even putting words on paper in drips and drabs can result in finished work. It just takes time.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Today's Writing Quiz

Today, my writing students are going to get the following, non-graded quiz. All the examples here are taken from actual student papers handed in to me in the past. Although there are some outright errors below, most of the sentences are serviceable but wordy or convoluted.  

What is either wrong or weak about the following sentences?  Revise to remove those problems.

 1.  In order to analyze their results, the researchers used an ANOVA.
2.  The study would seem to suggest that males are more physically aggressive than females.

3.  It has been found that honey bees can detect ultraviolet radiation.

4.  The study examined the role of anxiety levels in racial stereotyping.

5.  The researchers were interested in studying the effects of temperature on test taking.

6.  The patient exhibited flattened effect.

7.  When the participant was exposed to the test stimulus they showed a strong reaction.

8.  Charles Darwin finds that there are remarkable similarities between humans and other primate species.

9.  There have been a lot of studies done to investigate the role of anger in punishment.

10.  Heroin is an elicit drug.

11.  They gathered data from 17 women; all of whom were taking birth control pills.
12.  Participants were asked to sign a consent form before filling out the survey.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Noir at the Bar: The Readings:

So I made it the Noir at the Bar reading at the Irish House on St. Charles last night. I got there a bit early because I’d heard they had good food and figured to eat and drink a beer or two before the festivities began. Jāson Stuart, the organizer, and his wife, Karen, were also early so we all sat down to a meal. Karen and I had the house burger and we both agreed it was great. Jāson had the big Irish breakfast, with various kinds of sausages and puddings. Looked delicious and I’ll have to try that next time. Wonder of wonders, we talked books and writing. Who’d a thunk it?

Folks began to trickle in and we actually started the reading around 8:00. Jāson read a short, poignant piece from a work that should be out soon with a very intriguing main character. Heather Graham then read a piece from one of her published works. This was the first time I’d met Ms. Graham. She was very nice. The great Megan Abbott read next, from a work in progress. Everyone admired her description of rattlesnakes!  I didn’t get a chance to talk to her a lot but did mention knowing her mother, Patti Abbott. She laughed and said that everyone knew her mother.

Laura Lippman was unable to appear, but we also had readings from myself, Greg Herren, and Nate Southard. Greg was the only person besides me with a piece set in the New Orleans area. I believe he said the title of his tale was: “A Streetcar named Death.” Nate and his wife came all the way from Austin, giving them the win in the travel department. Nate’s piece featured a small town sheriff who is not only dealing with crimes but with the onset of Alzheimer’s. What an interesting concept.

Besides the readers, there were probably about a dozen other folks there, as well as some people listening in who had come to the bar because it was…well…a bar. I have to call out three of my Xavier colleagues for coming out to support me: Elizabeth and Elliott Hammer, and Kate Eskine. Kate brought hubby along. He didn’t seem to have been dragged kicking and screaming. Elizabeth is such a sweetheart she even wore a hat with a “Charles Gramlich Fan Club” attachment. It was great to have them there and I thank them. I am not worthy!

After it was all over, several of us sat around and visited and had another drink or two. We talked more writing and traded some books among ourselves. I really had a good time. I don’t get out a lot and this kind of event always makes me wonder why since I have a good time when I do. Thanks to Jāson for organizing and to everyone who read or came to listen. I’m hearing rumors of another one next year so that sounds pretty cool.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Noir at the Bar

I'll be here on Saturday night this week, March 22. I'm really looking forward to it. A number of authors are going to be reading their noir tales, including Megan Abbott and, I think, Heather Graham. I'll be reading a piece called "The Finest Cut," which appeared in my Harmland collection. 

The reading takes place at the Irish House: 1432 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans, LA 70130. It's from 7:30 to 10:30. I have no idea what time I'm likely to be reading. But there is booze there! Come drop by and say hello if you can. Should be a great time. 

Contact information for the Irish House is: (504) 595-6755

There's also a page on facebook about it. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Favorite Movies: Part 2

Here's part two of my list of favorite movies, and the ones that have had some influence on my fiction. 
             6. Alien. I consider this my second favorite horror movie. It’s far more horror than SF to me, although it combines those elements. It has definitely influenced some of my more graphic horror. I know Sigourney Weaver from this film, and I would recognize the name of the Captain if I heard it, although I can’t think of it now. Despite that, there’s one element of this film that irritates me, and that is how fast the alien grows after it “hatches.”

                7.  Aliens. The sequel to Alien is a very different movie. It has horror elements but it is primarily adventure SF, which I do enjoy writing. There are some great dialogue lines in this one, and some great characters. I know Weaver, of course, and would certainly recognize the names of several of the other actors if I heard them. This was an influence on Under the Ember Star.

                8. Predator. This movie nicely combines horror and adventure. The SF elements are really quite minimal. I know Arnold, of course, and Apollo Creed. I know that’s not the real name of the actor but the character he played on Rocky. There are elements of this movie that influenced Cold in the Light.

                9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1978. Also a horror movie as opposed to a true SF film. Very enjoyable. I like the first version quite  a bit too, but this is the first version I “saw” and I’ll always have a soft spot for it. This film was remade a couple of times later and was horribly mangled. Only the first two versions are worth seeing. I would say this has influenced some of my horror.

                10. Brotherhood of the Wolf. This is a French film starring a number of actors whose names I wouldn’t even recognize. It’s based on real historical events, a “beast” that terrorized the French countryside and was widely believed at the time to be a werewolf. The movie puts quite a bit different spin on the “beast.” It’s got great action and wonderful visuals. I enjoyed this enough to go and buy a copy. I did so, partly, because I figured it wouldn’t show very often on TV. I was right.

Honorable Mentions:
                11. The Exorcist. One of the few movies that actually creeps me out.
                12. Excalibur.  A dramatic retelling of elements from the Arthur legend.
                13. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Great pulp adventure.
                14. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Western mythmaking with Clint Eastwood.

                15. Young Frankenstein. I seldom watch movie comedies but this is one of my favorites.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Favorite Movies: Part 1:

I quite often make a point of saying that films mean almost nothing to me. It’s true. I watch movies. I enjoy some of them. Almost always I promptly forget them and can’t even remember their titles within a few days. I have no idea about the names of most actors. Lana often tells me the names when we’re watching movies, but within fifteen minutes I couldn’t give you that name. I think I’ve looked up something on the internet about movies or actors maybe a dozen times in my life. I’ve bought exactly six movie DVDs in my life, three of which I got in a package deal for about 3 bucks (and have never watched since I bought them).  Lana has bought two others that I might well have bought myself under the right circumstances. Yet, I cannot say that movies haven’t affected me. And there have been some that have influenced my writing. So, instead of bashing movies too badly today, I’m going to actually talk about a few movies I really do like and which have been influences on my fiction.  To avoid making these posts too long, I'll do it in two parts.

                1.  Once Upon a Time in the West. This is my favorite western, and perhaps my favorite movie. It stars Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, and Henry Fonda.  Bronson plays a gunfighter known only as “Harmonica,” and Fonda is the primary villain. This is really the classic myth of the old west and I do own a copy of it. I didn’t actually buy the copy, though. It was a gift. There are lines of dialogue and certain descriptions in the Talera series and in Cold in the Light that evoke elements of this film.

                2. The Outlaw Josey Wales. This is my second favorite western, starring Clint Eastwood, of course. I couldn’t tell you any of the other actors in it. It is actually based on a novel and is one of the very few cases in history where—for me—the movie is a whole lot better than the book. This also had an influence on the Talera series.

                3. The 13th Warrior, starring Antonio Banderes and a bunch of other actors I don’t know. This is my favorite heroic fantasy movie. It’s based on Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, which is a retelling of the Beowulf story. Both the book and the movie are very good. The movie has been more of an influence on my work than the book, primarily because of the very strong visuals. This movie’s influences can be seen in some of my heroic fantasy, such as “A Whisper in Ashes.”

                4. The Thing, John Carpenter version. This is my favorite horror movie. I know the faces of many of the actors in it from other films but the only name I know is Kurt Russell. I thought the casting was excellent, though, and Carpenter got great performances from all the cast members. This has definitely influenced my horror fiction.

                5. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The one exception to my “I don’t care about TV/Movies” feelings is Star Trek: The Original Series. I will watch anything and everything about the original series and have seen every episode and film more than once. I’ve even watched the cartoon series, which featured the voices and likenesses of most of the original cast.  I know almost all the actors names, which is unheard of for me with any other series ever. I even know the names of many of the guest stars and have several of their autographs. Wrath of Khan is by far the best of the movies made with the original cast and I’ve watched it so many times I largely have it memorized. Perhaps strangely, however, it has had little actual influence on my writing. I’m sure it’s influenced overall themes but not many details of the Star Trek Universe enter my fiction. Part of it is that I seldom write SF of this type, and part is that I know the stuff so well that I automatically reject it for specifics in my own fiction. The one exception is probably the Spock eyebrow arch, which I have had characters do in my stories. Lana bought a copy of this but I fully endorsed the purchase.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Review of Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

I read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy quite a few years ago now, and reviewed it at the time in various places. I never posted the review on my blog, however, so here it is:

Book ReviewBlood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West:  (Vintage, 1992, 335 pages). This was the first book I read by Cormac McCarthy. It is both beautifully written, and deeply flawed. The prose is often scintillating. McCarthy’s command of the language and his use of metaphor and vocabulary is extraordinary, enough to make me envious. On the other hand, the flaws (as I see them) often make this book a difficult read.
First, in the modern literary tradition, McCarthy attempts to make his book as inaccessible as possible to readers. He eschews the use of normal dialogue punctuation and often leaves out helpful speaker tags. There are “no” quotation marks to indicate dialogue and I was incredibly irritated by this. It smacks of elitism. I see no benefit to it and the costs are considerable. There were many places where it was difficult to recognize transitions in dialogue and who was speaking. The writer’s job is to make his or her prose as accessible as possible. Note, I don’t say “easily accessible.” McCarthy’s work almost demands rereading for the quality of his prose, his imagery, and his meaning. Why, then, make a sometimes difficult task more difficult by doing something as silly as leaving out quotation marks.
There were two other major flaws in this work, flaws that prevent it from reaching the level of artistry that it had the potential to reach and which the cover blurbs suggested it had obtained. First, and most critically, there is little “story” in this tale. I don’t believe story is the “only” reason for writing. I appreciate beautiful language and surrealism, but story is important and is needed to carry a long work like this. A book cannot be a masterpiece without story.
For the most part in this book, a young man, fourteen years of age when the tale begins and known only as “the kid,” wanders around in Texas and Mexico observing and participating in various acts of extreme violence. He has no goals (realistic perhaps but not particularly conducive to story). He simply survives one scenario after another with little more than animalistic reactance. His “will to live” may be remarkable, but when the blurbs say that this book should stand alongside Moby Dick I think they are wrong.
In Moby Dick, at least the character of Ahab had a clearly discernable goal--to kill the white whale. The Ahab character in Blood Meridian, who carries a touch of the character of the white whale as well, is known as “the judge.”  But the judge doesn’t even appear until page 79, and his motives are opaque, at least to me.
Another flaw, and one that strikes me as a major one in a “literary” novel, is that there is virtually no character development. This is perhaps understandable for the judge, whose personality is fully formed when we meet him, but it seems there should have been much more development for the kid, who ages by over a decade during the book. There is no “regeneration through violence” as the front cover asserts for the kid. He is the same at the end as at the beginning. The sheer weight of violence this boy witnessed and took part in would have been expected to have shaped his character. It doesn’t. He becomes neither holy nor truly debauched. In fact, his emotional reaction throughout is virtually deadpan. It’s as if he’s spent the years as a garbage collector, but without really getting any extra ‘stink’ on him.
Speaking of violence, Blood Meridian is, make no mistake, intensely and brutally violent, perhaps the most violent book I’ve ever read. The violence is constant and deftly handled, neither over dramatized nor too understated. There are certainly echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and such films as Apocalypse Now. Had the violence more clearly served the purposes of a story I would have praised it. Perhaps McCarthy’s point is that there is no glory or honor or redemption in violence, and he may be right. But that is hardly the stuff of myths. One aside about the violence in Blood Meridian is that I find it interesting that a level of violence that would, in a genre novel, be seen as “over the top,” is here considered masterful. Perhaps violence that has a point is suspect.
A last flaw in the book comes with the ending, though I’m sure many literary critics would disagree. Frankly, as with many literary novels, I didn’t understand the ending. When the kid stumbles upon the judge at the end, the judge embraces him and then.... What?  From the response of witnesses it was something rather horrible. I ’m just not sure what. Cannibalism?  Murder?  Sex? Clearly, Blood Meridian had an effect on me or I wouldn’t have gone on so long about it. It has passages of great beauty, and though I’ve criticized it I still find myself recommending it. I don’t think it is a great novel, but it does have power.


Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Mardi Gras

 At midnight the police moved in and began to disperse the dense French Quarter crowd. The members of that crowd didn’t want to stop the party but reluctantly gave away, breaking into sub crowds, then into smaller groups that gradually streamed off toward homes or other parties. Fat Tuesday was over. Lent had begun.

As the crowds split, a cold hard gust of wind came blowing in over them and over the Quarter. It gathered other gusts to itself, swirled across the Faubourg Marigny and up Bourbon and Royal streets like a desert dust devil. It carried with it black dust and a mélange of beads and other Mardi Gras trash. It picked up the stench of sweat-soaked people, the stale odors of alcohol, urine, vomit. Along with those scents it gathered the thoughts and feelings of the revelers—their joys and rages, their laughter and sobs, their lusts and sins.

And when the wind had all of that in its grasp, it leaped upward toward the highest steeple of the St. Louis Cathedral.The cross at the top of the steeple shook; a dirty shadow enveloped it, then shrank down, took darkling form. For a moment it seemed that a long-armed man clung to the steeple. Then the figure leaped down and down from the cathedral and disappeared into the bushes and hedges of Jackson Square. The wind was gone as if it had never been.