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Archive for March, 2009

It’s what I consider one of the strangest writer interview questions: where do you get your ideas?  As more writers get interviewed on more blogs, I thought it was a question that was going to die, but it hasn’t.  I’ve seen it asked in two different author interviews just this week, despite the fact that the answer is almost always the same.  Writers get their story ideas from everywhere.  Everything.

A newspaper article.  An overheard conversation.  A non-verbal interaction glimpsed.  A random string of free associations.  A dream.

I like getting the occasional story idea from dreams, because I always assume that it must be a powerful distillation of my subconscious mind.  Something that has stewed for weeks, months, maybe years.  Of course, it could just be the mental equivalent of random detritus vacuumed out of the couch cushions.

I had one this week, involving a set of conjoined triplets.  I woke and scribbled down the details, some snatches of dialog, first impressions of narrator and characters.  The next morning, it made sense and it still intrigued, so I set to writing a first draft.

conjoined

Conjoined

As do a lot of writers I know, I like research.  Even if I’ll never use the information gathered except as background, I like to learn more about the things I’m writing about.  This story idea is no exception.  The first thing I did was Google “conjoined triplets.”  I was quickly reminded that the internet is full of ignorance.  Places like Yahoo! Answers and Ask.com are just as likely to contain misinformation as they are to contain facts.

If you’re willing to rely on the guidance of random strangers, you’d leave your research into conjoined triplets fairly convinced that such a thing is unheard of and undocumented in medical history.  From that, I might well assume that my story idea is likely to be fantastical in nature.  One intrepid respondent to a question about conjoined triplets suggested that the odds were 1 in 11,000,000,000.  No idea how that was arrived at, but as a former Freshman Composition instructor, I knew what I had to do next: actual research.

Now here’s where the internet is fabulous: online access to the University’s database of journals, including full articles from The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.  Just like that, the truth came out.  In Greece, in this century, doctors prenatally diagnosed a case of conjoined triplets.  Genetically identical females, well-developed, and sharing a single heart and liver, were diagnosed using three-dimensional ultrasound at 22 weeks gestation.

Although the fetuses were well-developed and might well have survived to birth, the pregnancy was terminated because of the mother’s health.  I won’t post them here, because they are rather disturbing, but the photos make clear that conjoined triplets, no matter how rare, are not merely in the realm of fantasy or science fiction.

It was also a good reminder that no matter where a story idea comes from, it needs to go to factual resources to get its legs.

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It started Friday night and by Saturday, I had a full-blown fever.  Not yet of the achy, miserable, death-dealing variety, but a good fever.  Maybe that sounds weird, but there are good fevers.  The ones that detach you from your usual thought-processes, letting you wander freely through your subconscious and unconscious mind, leaving a trail of powdered donut crumbs upon which a million little mental ants will swarm and feed.  Delightful.

Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Paul Lawrence Dunbar

There’s something sensuous about fever as well.  The heat in all your limbs, the heaviness in your eyes, the way every sensation is magnified until even the seams on your clothes chafe and irritate.  If your partner isn’t afraid of cooties, fever sex is magnificent.  Intense but blunted, confounding and goalless.  No wonder there was such a cloud of romance around tuberculosis in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The bitterness of encroaching death sweetened by fever-pleasure and hallucination.  Some of the best fevers of my life were in college in the weeks before I was diagnosed with TB.  Luscious, trippy evening fevers that dissipated by morning.  Like a wine buzz, but without a hangover.  Too bad it turned out I had TB.  I could have gone on forever enjoying those fevers and the fruits of those fevers.

Because that’s the writerly element of my fever-pleasure: the things I think of to write while I’m in the throes of a fever.  Perhaps it’ll be weeks before they come to fruition, but the seeds are planted around 100-101 degrees.  It makes me wonder about all the artificial means writers employ to expand their creative visions, to access their subconscious, to free them from inhibitions.

Many people write while drinking wine or other alcohol.  I find it dulls me as much as marijuana.  Makes everything seem funny or clever or brilliant, until sober daylight falls on it.  It works for some writers, though. A little too well, perhaps.  Joyce, Cheever, Chandler, Hemingway, they were all alcoholics.  Tennessee Williams, he was just a lush.

Edgar Allen Poe

Edgar Allen Poe

Poe went full bore, a user and abuser of alcohol, absinthe, and cocaine. Same for Hunter S. Thompson, although his extensive pharmacological experimentation makes Poe look like a mere dabbler.  If alcohol won’t deliver, there’s acid and peyote. (If you don’t mind the “who crapped in my mouth?” feeling afterward.)

As a grown up, I’ve sworn off drugs, but there’s always that other fallback from my college days: sleep deprivation.  Such lovely strange visions it provided.  Go without sleep long enough and you’ll meet parts of your personality you never knew existed.  Or at any rate, your friends will meet them.  You’ll have a vague memory of it, like an old movie on late night television that you half-slept through.  Later, you can’t remember which parts were really the movie and which parts were your dream.

For example, in grad school I once had a deeply involved conversation with a bag of Legos at a thrift store.  It was the product of nearly four days of sleeplessness, powered by coffee and truckstop love.  Sadly, my boyfriend at the time did not value the hallucinogenic effects of my lack of sleep and intervened.

Then there’s the simple fact that sleep deprivation can be just as dangerous as many drugs.  All in all, I’ll take a nice fever to fuel my imagination.  What about you?  What’s your preferred creative “drug”?

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It’s spring break here, which means nothing is happening at work. To pass the time, I decided to borrow Vanity Fair‘s “Proust questionnaire” and see what the main character from Ugly and the Beast had to say.

***

Long suspected of being an enforcer for the Caridad drug cartel, Axyl Witt was convicted of five homicides in 2002, including the murder of a young woman and her unborn child, a case that later led to the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Witt was sentenced to death for those killings, and has spent six years in H-Unit, Oklahoma’s death row, pending the outcome of appeals. On the eve of his execution, the 33-year old shared his thoughts on friendship, death, and true love.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Not being here waiting to get dead, that’d be a start. I guess a good day would be like a day where you do some work. Nothing too hard, but just so you felt like you’d done something worthwhile. Then come in and have some supper, have a beer, listen to some music, get laid. Not just, you know, getting laid, but being with a girl who’s into me. This girl I know, if I could be with her one last time, that’d make me happy. She knows me and I think she still likes me, which prolly just means she’s crazy.

What is your greatest fear?
Ah shit, I ain’t afraid of much. This stage of the game, I ain’t even all that afraid of dying. Wouldn’t do me no good if I was.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Genghis Khan. He’s a bad motherfucker, right? What’s that supposed to mean anyways? Who I’m like or who I wanna be like?

Which living person do you most admire?
Muhammad Ali. Even though I think he was stupid to change his name. Cassius Clay was a kick-ass name. He’s an old man now, but I like how he didn’t take shit off nobody. He pretty much did what he wanted and everybody else could go hang.

What is the trait you most dislike in yourself?
I dunno. Prolly not the one I’m s’posed to, which is why I’m here. Wish I had a better handle on my temper. Shit gets me riled that I oughta be able to walk away from.

What is the trait you most dislike in others?
I fucking hate backstabbers and people who are two-faced. Folks who say one thing, do another. They act all like they’re your friends, and then turn right around and screw you over.

What is your favorite indulgence?
Uh, sex. And not just ’cause I been locked up in here so long. I like to fuck. Every which way. Shona, the girl I told you about, now she ain’t nothing to look at, downright pug ugly, but she’s crazy in bed. She don’t go for all that romantic bullshit or make me jump through hoops or nothing. A lotta girls got this whole deal, like I gotta figure out what’s the magic word to get them in bed. They act like hookers, like you gotta say the right thing even if it’s a lie, or you gotta do the right thing, or buy ‘em something nice. And it’s all about paying them for their trouble. Shona, though, like if I say, “Let’s fuck,” she just shucks outta her clothes and gets in bed. Plus, she’ll try anything and she ain’t ashamed to say what gets her off.

What is your favorite journey?
I like driving, don’t matter where. Just being on the road is good, eating up the highway.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
People who think just ’cause they’re polite or got good manners that they’re good people. These assholes who talk shit about you behind your back, but then they’re all, “Oh, Mr. Witt,” and “thank you,” and “please.” What’s the point?

On what occasion do you lie?
Whenever the hell I need to. I’ll lie to anybody I think don’t need to know about my shit. And that’s most folks these days. Lawyers, shrinks, reporters, cops. I mean, what’s it benefit me to spill my guts?

What do you dislike most about your appearance?
I never had no trouble getting women, so I guess I look alright. Or is that s’posed to be some kinda deal where I tell you how I wish I could pass for white? ‘Cause I don’t give a shit. I guess a few times, mostly when I was in court, I wished I didn’t have these tattoos. People look down on you for that kinda thing.

Which living person do you hate the most?
The most? Oh, fuck, there’s a whole shit-ton a people I’d just as soon shoot as look at. Hard to pick one.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Fuck shit fucking fucked goddamn motherfucking shit. Had a girlfriend once tried to get me to cuss less. Didn’t work out.

What is your greatest regret?
Aw, Christ. For real? I guess I’m supposed to say, ‘I wish I hadn’t killed them people,” but it ain’t like I was killing nice people. A guy like Vince Marquardt, that was a what-do-you-call-it, a fucking public service, me killing him. I wish I’d done better by Shona, that’s about it. Wish I hadn’t let myself get used by people like Anthony Caridad.  There it is, I said his name.  What’s he gonna fucking do to me now?

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
No sense talking about bullshit like that. You know, Shona, she’s worth more than everybody I know put together, and I’d do anything I could for her, but “love of my life” don’t mean shit. If I could still do anything for her, I would, and I guess that’s love.

Which talent would you most like to have?
I wish I was smarter. Maybe I wouldn’t be here if I had more brains.

What is your current state of mind?
Pretty calm. They tried to give me a pill a while ago, guess they thought I’d be feeling antsy, but I don’t really.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I don’t guess I got one. I figure after I’m dead, nobody much is gonna remember me. Except for the folks who want me dead, and the way I see it, they’re headed for disappointment. Killing me ain’t gonna fix whatever’s wrong with them.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
That’s a dumb fucking question. I don’t really believe in that shit, but probably a dog. Which wouldn’t be too bad. I like dogs okay.

What is your most treasured possession?
Nothing. You looking at everything I own right here. Clothes on my back. Hell, I guess they ain’t even mine. Property of the State of Oklahoma.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Ever reached a point where there wasn’t one person in the whole fucking world who cared if you lived and whole lotta folks who wanted you dead? Yeah. That’s about all I got to say on that.

Where would you like to live?
Just about any place that ain’t Oklahoma or Texas.

What is your favorite occupation?
Same as the other one: fucking. I like to read okay, but give me a choice between a book and pussy, I’ll take pussy every time.

What is your most marked characteristic?
Depends who you talk to. Prosecutor at my trial said I was a dangerous, violent psychopath. I guess I am violent. Dangerous, okay, but I ain’t a psychopath. I been told I’m a smart-ass.

What is the quality you most like in a man?
I like a guy who’s upfront. Don’t jerk you around or stab you in the back.

What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Nice tits and ass. And I like a woman with a soft voice. Somebody you can listen to talk. And I like a woman who’s honest. A girl who ain’t afraid to tell me what’s what. She don’t gotta to tell me what I wanna hear, as long as she don’t bullshit me.

What do you most value in your friends?
When I had ‘em, I liked folks who was loyal. People you could trust. Which is why I only got the one friend left, because all the rest of ‘em used me like a fucking doormat.

Who are your favorite writers?
I like reading National Geographic. I like Norman Mailer. Stephen King and Elmore Leonard. And the guy who wrote that book Marathon Man, and that other one about the kids who go crazy on the deserted island. Sucks to your ass-mar. I don’t remember his name, but those was both good books. You know what I hate? Books about lawyers and serial killers.

Who is your favorite fictional hero/heroine?
James Bond, ’cause he’s always got shit figured out. He ain’t really a nice guy, but he does okay. And I like the woman in those Alien movies. She’s fucking tough, but it was stupid to go back for the goddamn cat.

Who are your heroes in real life?
Hell, I dunno. Abe Lincoln, I guess. I can’t think of nobody who’s alive.

What is it that you most dislike?
Bullshit. Screwing around, wasting time with bullshit. Just like this. Why’d I gotta sit around for five days, waiting to die? Oughta just walk me outta my cell and take care of it.

How would you like to die?
You trying to piss me off? Not by lethal injection, I’ll tell you what. I wish I was in a state that still had death by firing squad. I’d rather take a bullet than get a fucking needle full of poison. As long as it was a good shot, I’d take that anyways. Better than getting cancer or something.

What is your motto?
Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.

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Voltaire was right about so many things, but about this above all else.  When you strive for perfection, you will always fall short, not just of perfection, but likely of goodness as well.

I’m thinking about this today as a result of going to see Watchmen last night.  (On IMAX, which I recommend for its size and clarity.  Even if the larger-than-life full frontal blue nudity is a bit more disturbing on IMAX, this is a beautiful film, worthy of the big big big screen.)

Watchmen Franchises

Watchmen Franchises

I’ve not read a lot of detailed reviews of the movie, perhaps an even dozen, but the thing that strikes me about those reviews now that I’ve seen the movie is that they were all written by disappointed people.  Not people disappointed because the movie wasn’t good.  People disappointed because the movie wasn’t perfect.  Either wasn’t perfect in and of itself, or in more cases, wasn’t a perfect adaptation of the comic book.

As a fan of the book, I enjoyed the movie.  I thought it was quite good.  (In its final story arc, I actually thought it was a bit better than the book.  I know: heresy!  Hold off with burning me at the stake, okay?)  It wasn’t perfect, and that’s a blessing.  The pressure for perfection was what kept the film from being made for years.  People described it as “unfilmable,” but only because they were laboring under the notion that the only way to do the book justice would be to create a “perfect adaptation” of it.

In short, the Ghost of Perfect almost killed a perfectly good movie.

I think it frequently happens to writers, too.  We become obsessed with making a particular story or scene or chapter perfect.  Sometimes, it’s a worthy intent: we can see that the scene isn’t right and we work to improve it.  At other times, we use the pursuit of perfection as a way to procrastinate.  Just one more round of revisions.  Just one more draft.  Then we’ll send the story out.  Then we’ll query the book.  Just a few more tweaks and it will be done.  Maybe next month.  Maybe next year.

It’s an understandable fear.  No one likes to be rejected.  Or worse, mocked.  Or worse, burned in literary effigy on the internet.   Consider the glee with which otherwise nice, supportive people are willing to tear Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown limb from literary limb on writing forums.  Consider that Alan Moore’s attitude toward the Watchmen film is one of pre-emptive disapproval.   Not perfect = not good enough to give it a chance.   He rightly observes that some of the elements of Watchmen are only suited to comic books, but shouldn’t that let the film off the hook for those elements?  Shouldn’t it get to stand on its own for what it is: a movie?

A pretty good movie.

Similarly, if you find yourself bound up in thinking, “I’m never going to be as talented as [fill in the blank with your literary god],” you will always fall short.  No matter what you write, it will never be perfect.  You can never replicate the genius of another writer.  Your writing must stand on its own for what it is, whatever it is.

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Outside the comfort zone

Never mind writing characters who are a different gender, race, ethnicity, what have you.  Sometimes the big struggle is writing a character who isn’t that far removed from you, but who has done something you’ve never even considered.

Not murder–I’ve given that some serious thought over the years.  I even have a couple of back-up plans in case I need them. *shifty eyes*

Infidelity.  I’ve never cheated on anyone.   Sure, there were a few relationships that came to an abrupt end after I’d met Mr. Improvement Over Current Boyfriend, but I’ve always had an official break up before I moved on.

I’ve gotten far enough into my character to understand why she cheats on her fiancé.  (Beyond that familiar trope about “Women cheat because they’re lonely, men cheat because they can.”)  What I have to do next is creep further into her and figure out what she does next.  Now, as a happily married woman I sit around pretending that I’ve cheated on my husband so that I can analyze my current behavior and extrapolate from there how my behavior would change if I had cheated on him.  Hours spent thinking, “What would I be doing/thinking/feeling right now, if I’d just cheated on my husband?”

Thus far it’s been interesting, not just from a writer’s standpoint, but also for making me look at why I do some of the things I do.  Sure, it feels weird, but it’s preferable to the alternative a friend suggested: “Cheating is fun.  You should try it.”  I had to remind her it’s not the writer’s job to live it.  It’s our job to imagine it.

What about you, my fellow writers–where are you stepping outside your comfort zone?

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Christian Bale got a lot of bad press for a temper tantrum he had while filming Terminator: Salvation.  Fine, let directors of photography trash talk him behind his back, but he deserves a lot of praise from writers for another revelation that’s recently come out. When he was originally offered the role, he said he would only accept it if the director “could refine the script to the point where it could be read on stage without any special effects and still be a compelling story.”

Terminator_Bale

Terminator_Bale

In short, Bale felt that the only way the movie would be worth starring in is if the dialog and the story carried as much impact as the multi-million dollar special effects budget. As a writer, I dream of a day when Hollywood is filled with actors who feel that way.  Imagine if every actor and director went into every project demanding that storytelling trump spectacle.

What shocks me most when I see a movie with amazing special effect and lackluster dialog or a mediocre story arc is how foolishly money is spent in the process of making movies.  Movie makers think nothing of dropping millions of dollars to make every explosion look cool and every car chase breathtaking.  When the car comes screeching to a halt, though, the character development sputters to a halt and the relationship between the two main characters turns into a clunker.  Why? Writers are cheap.  Trust me, I know.  We work for so little.  Even truly talented writers rarely make a fortune at their work. So why not shave off some extra money off the crash-and-blow-em-up budget and hire a few more writers to really polish that script?

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