Saturday, June 18, 2011

The magic of brothers

When I was a kid growing up on a dead-end street in Hillside, factories at the top, factories at the bottom, all playing fields to us, we had an ice-cream man who served soft ice cream along with the Good Humor bars. The most expensive item on the truck was a chocolate shake.

The block was full of kids ranging from me and my best friend Anne, the youngest, to older brothers and sisters, in their late teens and early twenties. None of us could really afford the chocolate shakes. I'd stare at the picture as I counted dimes. One day, my brother was there, watching us in line. He must have seen me counting, figuring, looking disappointed, because he got up off the curb and said, "What do you want? My treat."

I was afraid to say the shake, but he guessed it and said, that's fine, and he pulled what looked like a fortune to me from his pocket. I'm sure it wasn't, but slicing a dollar bill from what looked like tens and twenties had my eyes open wide. He worked. He was older. From that day on, if he was ever around when the ice cream man came, he'd jog over and buy me a shake.

That wasn't his only magic. He let me play in his bedroom when he was out. He had swords and daggers hanging on his walls, medieval wall hangings, a spiked flail hanging over his pillow. And he had a wall of model cars. I didn't take anything down, I just touched things gently, and then lay on his bed and made up stories. I liked cars and dolls equally as a kid; I liked swords and easy-bake-ovens. He encouraged my imagination in what others might have dissuaded.

And he was an artist, is an artist. He'd let me watch him draw. I'd sit at the kitchen table and watch the array of pencils bring out shadow and light to form trees and mountains and cabins and our own small house in a little street.

He's taken to going on vacations with my family now. And I tell him he has to bring his paints and canvases. It takes him nearly the entire week to get up inspiration, and then he sighs and unwraps the canvas and sets out the paint jars and palette. I wonder if he's doing it just because I'm waiting. We bring home at least two small canvases, little things he says aren't worth anything.

I love them. I have two of his large paintings hanging in my house, along with the little things. I still have the sketches he drew me when I was kid, even the fire engines he helped me draw for a school project. He'll be retiring soon, and I told him he has to come out more often, have dinner with us. He and Gary are very good friends. Maybe we'll go out for ice cream, and maybe I'll order the biggest dish!

Older brothers can be magic to a younger sister. I wonder sometimes how much he's responsible for my opinions of men and my underlying belief they're good guys.

Friday, June 17, 2011

To spin on a thread, eating the sun and moon

In Romania, the Varcolaci vampires hunger, not for the red blood flow of humans, but for the light of the sun and the moon. Sometimes depicted as small animals, but also as pale and parched humans, one legend has it that they're created at midnight if a woman spins without candlelight. They travel wherever they like on the thread of this midnight spinning, as long as the thread isn't broken, and an eclipse is the Varcolaci satiated by that lost sun or moon.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

And the character says, Remember me?

Woke this morning thinking about favorite fictional characters, whether in books or movies or TV or any other media. The characters that first popped into mind for me ranged from crushes to heroes to soulmates. I’m beginning my list, as they first came to mind, and might keep adding if I remember more.
I’d be curious to hear what characters have influenced or remained with you!
Aragorn (LOTR)
Eowyn (LOTR)
Jack (Lost)
Shep (The Hoax)
Stephen Dedalus (Portrait of the Artist …)
Quentin (The Sound and the Fury/Absalom! Absalom!)
Alyosha (Brothers Karamazov)
Ged (Wizard of Earthsea trilogy)
Charlotte (Lost)
Baltasar (The Campaign)
Orphan Huerta (Christopher Unborn)
Nayeli (Into the Beautiful North)

Commonly misused words and phrases

Spell check doesn’t necessarily catch words that are spelled correctly but chosen incorrectly. Here’s a list of some of the most common I’ve found in my editing experience. (Written in a certain vein, because vampires need proper grammar too.)


Of course I’ll accept (agree with, allow) your tongue at my throat. After the summer drought, I thirst for everything except (excluding, omitting) the thought of your departure.


What will be the effect (result) of this dry, hot summer? More than these lost barley rows, the drought will affect (influence/cause a response) the substance of my blood, my ability to quench your constant need.

(Usually, “effect” is the noun, and “affect” is the verb; however, “effect” is sometimes used as a verb, as in, The drought effected (to bring about) great change in my body. And sometimes “affect” can be used as a noun, as in, He affected (assumed) a wry humor that belied his concern at the loss of blood.)


On the stairs of the old capitol (the building only), we waited for the sun to rise over the state’s capital (town or city holding government), and for a moment, we forgot our impending death, content with the joy of last night’s capital (financial assets) blood gains.


If she were to acquiesce to his demand, Emily would first ensure (make certain) the well-being of her family and insist the vampire insure (plan money payment for loss) her against the loss of her royal blood.


I will not go one step farther (physical distance) if you speak any further (abstract quantity) about my own lust being greater than yours; we are the same.


It’s (it is) the memory of sun on new green leaves and its (possessive/belonging to) bright heat on the farmhouse porch that keeps me at the window past dawn’s torturous waking.


Although the heavy storm clouds were lightening (lesser in weight) beyond his black cape blowing, the horizon sparked with lightning (electrical force).


The principal (main, foremost) goal of our midnight meeting was to establish the principles (rule, truth) by which our passion could be sated without offending the now sterile principal (chief person, head) of our vampire coven.


The wedding party will precede (to go or come before) the vampire bride, who will then proceed (to go on or move forward) into the reception hall to taste the guests.


Before composing my letters of consolation on this vibrant green stationery(writing paper), I must find a table more stationary (motionless, unmoving) than these skeletal remains of my month-long feast.


They’re (they are) forever dancing up there (in a place), all these black and starless nights, in their (possessive, belonging to) translucent skin and ghostly gauze dress.


I hope that the vampire who’s (who is) dancing above my ceiling knows whose(possessive, belonging to) black heels and heart have danced there once too.


With all these rules you devise for self-protection, you’re (you are) still left no choice but to follow what most ignites your (possessive, belonging to you) absolute and undeniable need.

Using reversals to refresh a story

Sometimes a story or a scene in a novel just isn’t working. Yet we can’t pin down why. Our brain, trained in the dos and don’ts of writing, can’t come up with a solution. That’s often when it helps to begin the scene over, write it fresh.

But author Stuart Spencer, in The Playwright’s Guidebook, offers another couple suggestions that might, even more than starting over, help writers let go of what they know, what is there and not working, to find instead what’s supposed to be. He calls the technique using reversals: interchanging character names or changing an essential element in the scene to its opposite.

For example, he says, if Joe is in love with Mike and wants to tell him, try writing it again, exchanging the names, with Mike in love with Joe, wanting to speak. Or change the element: if Joe is in love with Mike, have Joe wanting to kill Mike instead. Spencer’s theory is that “when that first choice doesn’t work, it’s because the intellect has covertly intruded on the work that belongs to the subconscious.”

By shaking things up so dramatically and diving back in, the writer is more apt to return to that place where the subconscious writes. And “the subconscious knows more about the truth than reasoning intellect.” As they say, when making a difficult decision, trust your intuition, trust your subconscious. Whatever lists you make of the pros and cons, somewhere deeper, you actually know what’s right. Sometimes in writing, we have to abandon the lists and trust the story that comes.

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The power of the image

The first image that pops in my mind is the pointed gray hat. Not any gray wizard’s hat, but a softened hat, slightly bent, worn at the edges, a sense of not only history in him but comfort, no need for embellishments or flash. A true hat, a used hat, a fitting hat.
For each character, there is probably some defining image. My mind flashes with Aragorn’s boots, worn too, mud-stained, a foot traveler, a strong and steady stride.
And what about images that represent not a character alone but an entire story or a theme? Why does the hollowed hiding place in the tree linger with so many of us after seeing To Kill a Mockingbird? On a broader scale, what do the wide expanses of frozen white make us feel in Fargo, and do they come to represent the movie as a whole?
In storytelling, whether in novels or short stories or movies, images can convey as much as dialogue or action. The image doesn’t have to be specifically symbolic, as in a one-to-one relationship like the “A” in The Scarlet Letter, or how a key might come to represent unlocking a secret. Sometimes an image carries with it universal associations that we can’t define: water, doors, open skies, passageways, lone trees, shadows, a sun rise.
A movie or a book can be subconsciously more powerful if the writer or filmmaker incorporates resonant imagery, letting the setting convey ongoing themes or character transitions, letting a single image speak rather than the characters themselves.
Imagine a scene in which two characters stand face to face: one is shouting about an important missed phone call, while the other is unable to speak. The argument has nothing to do with what’s really happening between them, which is a betrayal and a broken promise. As they argue, the silent character’s focus is on a china teacup, narrowing in on the crack running between flowers, a crack that appears larger and larger as the argument goes nowhere.
If later in the book or movie, a teacup is once again seen, in a different house, perhaps an older woman holding a fine cup, never broken, we might not consciously ask, what does this mean, what shift is happening here? But somewhere in our subconscious the new image recalls the old; somewhere inside, something stirs and we sit up, become more engaged with the story, without knowing why.
There’s magic in the subtle play of images. Sometimes you might see a movie or read a book that brings to mind a color. I’ve heard people say, “That movie was so blue,” or “That book felt orange.” Obviously, the writer or filmmaker associated a color with the mood of the story or with the characters’ emotions. Often it’s not a conscious choice, but something that happens in the writing stage, which is taken up unconsciously by the reader or viewer.
But when revising any story, the writer should look at the potential of an image, at what the character might not say, at the action that might not happen, but that the image might show. And trust that the reader, the audience, shares a similar consciousness, and will intuitively know.
Often it’s the subtle image working at the deeper level that stays with the audience, that creates a reaction that feels a bit like a mystery, a stirring inside that lingers after the story is finished.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Vampire novel due out this July!

My novel Beside the Darker Shore is due out July 7. Here's a little teaser:

What might the ethical Governor David Gedden give up for one man’s exquisite beauty? It’s terrifying to consider when the man is a destructive blood prostitute and David is responsible for the state’s peaceful vampire community. Blood sales in Boston are up, blood taxes support a thriving new nightlife, neighborhoods have been refurbished, and deaths by vampires have plummeted. David is assured reelection.

But the blood addict, Stephen Salando has returned from exile with one unalterable plan: to make the good governor a vampire. Stephen is an immortal dhampir, whose beauty obliterates reason, who rouses in David a fierce desire he’s ignored his whole life. For David, to have Stephen means to ally with the community’s archrival, to have him means becoming a potential killer himself.

As Stephen stood to put in his music, he downed his glass of wine, the orange light catching the liquid’s flow, streaking Stephen’s neck. There was no doubt he was beautiful, his slender silk neck belying the strength of tendons, of arteries that pumped eternally renewing blood. Did he think David could take that blood, could bite into this man whom he could hardly touch without ravishing as a human?

“If the intimacy of Stephen frightens you,” Arturo said, “think of the eternity I’m offering. You will have time for my villa in Potes, and I will take you there. Time for Italy and India, for Scottish moors and Arabian deserts, for Plato and Lawrence, Prokofiev and Paganini.

Arturo’s voice was lulling, his smile charming, and David couldn’t help a small smile in return.

“At night,” he continued, “we will skim our hands over Rodin's Orpheus and Donatello's David, stand beside de Chirico's melancholic street and Hopper's slanted shadows, voyeurs to each century and secrets in ourselves.”

A solitary, sad guitar strummed through the trailer, mixing with the breeze through the slatted window, and Stephen slid on the bench, next to David, while Arturo leaned back into shadows.

“This music is lonely,” he said, “rain and bare branches and twilight sky. Like Stephen.”

David’s arm was a twitch away from Stephen’s. Their legs brushed beneath the table. A drum began slowly beating alongside the guitar, propelling the night, yet holding them still. David sipped his wine, knowing it would taste like Stephen, and realized that what he wanted was entirely selfish. He wanted immunity, to taste all this, to drink only for himself.

He looked at Stephen, his dark lashes, sleek cheekbones. He wanted those soft lips parting, the taste of his breath, burgundy-rich, so near his mouth. He tasted Stephen before their tongues met.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Characterization with a Little Mystery

In the screenplay book I'm reading, Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay by Andrew Horton, the author uses the term "carnivalesque" when explaining how to develop real and memorable characters. Character is never complete, set, finished, but always glimpsed in motion from a certain perspective, he says, and quotes Seymour Chatman, "The horizon of personality always recedes before us."

In a carnival, people are thrown into a place of the unknown, where anything can happen. Carnival is the time when no rules hold, when one can become whatever he or she wishes. And even if the writer knows a character's core personality and uses this "core" knowledge to drive the plot of a story, there should remain a mystery, "a realm of the unresolved," something neither the writer or reader can fully know or understand.

"The beauty of life is in its uncertainty," the poet Yoshida Kenko says. And in a good book or film, sometimes we understand something without being able to explain it; we feel it and don't know why. When I read these ideas, I thought of one scene in Little Miss Sunshine.The teenage boy who had all his hopes set on being a pilot finds out he's color blind, runs off from the family, screaming out his rage and frustration, and he won't return to the family van. The sister eventually comes down the hill where he sits and squats beside him. Nothing is said, nothing explained, but we understand without explanation why he returns to the van.

We all know those moments from books and movies. Creating them? I think to do so, we have to let our story have a life of its own, guided but not quite pinned down. There's magic in that and I think the audience feels it.