Underworld: Awakening and the great gender swap

I finally caught up with Underworld: Awakening, a movie I'd put off seeing because I liked the first two Underworld films so much. Although technically the fourth in the series, chronologically it follows the second (the third was a totally unnecessary prequel), and picks up the story of Kate Beckinsale's Selene after the events of Underworld: Evolutions. Why, if I'm Read more

Blade Runner: crocodile tears in rain?

I'll say up front: this is totally fanboy rambling.  Take it as such. In Ridley Scott's classic film Blade Runner, evil corporate head Elton Tyrell explains to hero Rick Deckard how the Nexus 6 replicants, the closest the company's come to true human beings, have emotional issues since they're born fully adult and live only four years. Tyrell: We began to Read more

High Hopes: is talent finite?

This weekend, I finally listened to High Hopes, the most recent Bruce Springsteen album. Yes, it came out on January 14, and I bought it then, but I hadn't listened to it. There  were many times when I listened to a new Springsteen album multiple times on its release day, and almost exclusively for days after that. But something's happened to Read more

Some thoughts on a Star Trek rewatch

  My oldest son and I just finished watching the first season of the original Star Trek series. We watched the episodes in "production order," meaning the order in which they were filmed. That way, we could see the growth of the show, the way the actors find their characters, and how the Enterprise itself is more and more developed. Read more

Writing on demand for MY BLOODY VALENTINE

Every writer has at least one weakness, something they don't do as well as they'd like. They know it, and their readers know it. Raymond Chandler knew he didn't do plots well, which is why the structures of his novels a) don't bear up to scrutiny, and b) are often cribbed from his previous short stories. Of course, what Read more

Duck Dynasty and the Quack of Hypocrisy

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field …. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word! … Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

Those are the well-reported words of Phil Robertson, patriarch of the Duck Dynasty empire. His remarks on gays and lesbians have garnered the most press, but his comments on race run a close second. And the more I’ve read them (they’ve kind of been unavoidable), the more I thought about my own upbringing in the South. Robertson grew up in Louisiana in the 60s, and I’m a child of 70s Tennessee, but I bet our experiences are similar.

e87df430d

And in this case, my experience was identical: I never saw any of those things, either. And why would I? My school might not have been segregated, but my society certainly was. The moment those school bells rang, black and white kids went their separate ways, meeting only on the bus to take us to basketball games. We didn’t fight, but we also didn’t socialize, mingle, or hang out together.

But unlike Phil, I still knew that that kind of separation was wrong. And when I saw African Americans expressing their anger about it on the news, I understood it. And agreed with it.

Why? Beats me, really. My parents and extended family were prejudiced in that insidiously “benign” way that claims they wish no harm on other races, they just don’t want them around. That let them feel that they had the moral high ground over “real” racists who wanted to beat and kill any African Americans who got “uppity.” It also let them continue to claim to be good Christians. So I’ve seen the kind of society these beliefs create: I grew up in it, and whenever I go back home, I realize it still exists. It’s dying, to be sure, but as this whole Duck Dynasty controversy shows, it’s not going quietly into that good night. There are still plenty of people who want it back, and who think it’s the way things ought to be.

Which brings me back to Robertson’s statement. Did he really not see these things? Probably not. Why would he? He might have been “white trash,” as he says, but that’s still white. In that world, that degree of separation was enough.

But did he know about them? Of course he did. We all did. Which makes him at best a revisionist, at worst a hypocrite.

And what does that make those who support him so vehemently? Because here’s the truth: they know, too.

Jonathan Merritt at the Atlantic Monthly explains this in a more scholarly way.

Announcing Linda Fontana and T.S. Bunch

Posted on by Alex in short stories, writers, writing | Leave a comment

image001

 

First, a little personal history. My late brother hated hunting.

In the early 70s, after he returned from serving in Vietnam, he wrote an op-ed piece for the Springfield, MO newspaper criticizing hunting, specifically deer hunting. This caused some friction with my dad, who was a dedicated hunter, although of much smaller things (mostly squirrels, rabbits and geese). I’m not sure they ever worked it out, because it would’ve required honest communication, something at which my family did not excel.

I never became a real hunter. I went a few times as a boy, but much like fishing and driving, my father was terrible at teaching me things, and we usually ended up enraged at each other. For a long time I hated the sport, not from any moral perspective, but because I thought I was terrible at it.

Then, much later, I saw how hunting could be used as a great framework for stories. My favorite is H. Rider Haggard, particularly the classic King Solomon’s Mines. And yes, I enjoy Hemingway, especially The Snows of Kilimanjaro, but his posturing (which, once you become aware of it, is impossible to ignore) gets in the way for me. And in non-fiction, John Henry Patterson’s book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, made into the movie The Ghost and the Darkness, showed just how dramatic and novelistic a true story of hunting could be. These were stories, in fact, not about the act of hunting, but about people who happened to be hunters, much in the same way Rocky isn’t about boxing, but about a guy who happens to be a boxer.

peter-hathaway-capstick

Peter Hathaway Capstick.

The late Peter Hathaway Capstick wrote several wonderful non-fiction books about his experiences hunting all over the world. In Death in the Silent Places, he explains the rationale behind big-game hunting thus:

“The difference between shooting an elephant at one hundred yards through the chest and stalking a big tusker to within ten or so yards is the difference between simple animal assassination and real sport hunting. When you are within ten yards of a bull elephant, you, my friend, are in harm’s way. With the long shot, one kills an elephant in a sterile, riskless and, in my opinion, cowardly manner. At halitosis range, you enter into the most ancient nonbiological passion of humanity: self-testing. And on purpose, which is the most important aspect of the implied morality of the act.”

And that, really, is why I started writing about Linda Fontana and T.S. Bunch: I wanted to write about people who self-test, on purpose.

Linda is six feet tall, has the thickest Southern accent imaginable, and is known (behind her back) as “the Babe in the Woods.” Bunch is skinny, long-haired and possesses the greatest streak of luck anyone’s ever seen. They’ve been platonic friends since grade school, and travel the world hunting and guiding other hunters, in the tradition of Haggard and Hemingway, with a dollop of Capstick.

The first two stories, “Next-to-Last of the Tiger Men” and “Mack’s Last Rhino,” will be available from Amazon as part of their StoryFront imprint on December 18, and you can pre-order them here for 99 cents. I hope people like them, so I’ll be able to do more. Because I like Fontana and Bunch, and want to hang out with them for a long time.

New novel: Sword Sisters

Posted on by Alex in fantasy literature, Red Reaper, writers, writing | 5 Comments

So my latest novel, Sword Sisters, is about to be released.

Art by Xing Xin

Art by Xing Xin

If you’ve been following me, you’ve seen me post about co-writing a prequel to the film The Legend of the Red Reaper with that movie’s writer/director/star, Tara Cardinal. You can read about my motivation for doing so here.

And now, it’s done. Sword Sisters: A Red Reaper Novel is about to be published by Rogue Blades Entertainment, who also published Writing Fantasy Heroes, which included an essay by me. So they know the genre pretty well.

The main character is a half-human, half-Demon teenage girl named Aella, who struggles with the same things most adolescents do: family, school, boys, and friends. It’s told in her voice, which means I had to write it from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old girl. As you can imagine, that’s not exactly my default inner voice, but it turned out to be surprisingly easy. The trick, if you can call it that, is simply to surrender to the logic of the character. It’s either something Aella would say/do/feel, or it’s not; gender is really irrelevant, as is age.

My co-writer Tara Cardinal in character as Aella, from Legend of the Red Reaper.

My co-writer Tara Cardinal in character as Aella, from Legend of the Red Reaper.

This is also my first time working in someone else’s mythology, unless you count my flirtation with Charles Dickens in “A Ghost, and a Chance,” one of the stories in my Time of the Season ebook collection. Tara created a whole world for her film, with its own mythology, theology and history. Before I started, I assumed my ideas would butt up against hers constantly, but actually the opposite happened. Much like writing the character, writing the world was simply a matter of surrendering to its logic.

So how did we actually collaborate? Tara wrote a big chunk of the beginning, from which I extended an outline that we both signed off on. I picked up from the end of what she wrote, continuing the story in similar big chunks, which she would then revise. Again, I was worried that we would end up screaming at each other; after all, who was she to be changing what I wrote, I imagined myself thinking? But that never happened; any of the few things we disagreed on we hashed out with no acrimony. We each sort of accepted the other’s area of expertise: I was the full-time writer, and she was the world-builder, franchise supervisor and embodiment of the main character. If she said something wasn’t true to Aella, I had to accept it; after all, she is Aella.

Our working title was The Cave of Acherode, subsequently The Cave of Lurida Lumo (following a character’s name change). This was fine as a file name on our computers, but it didn’t really capture what the book was about, or jump out at you from a bookshelf. After the manuscript was completed and edited, we–me, Tara and the publisher–brainstormed and came up with something much punchier, and more true to the story: Sword Sisters.

So what is the book about? It’s about two young women who don’t fight over a boy, don’t sabotage each other, and work together to fight not just for themselves, but for others. It has monsters, action, touches of romance, and hopefully some good jokes.

And it’ll be available December 11, 2013.

Happy birthday, Joseph Conrad!

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized, writers, writing | 4 Comments

405px-Joseph_Conrad

 

Today, one hundred and fifty-six years ago, Joseph Conrad was born in Russia. He was Polish, but became a nationalized British subject in 1886. In 1899, his masterpiece Heart of Darkness first appeared in print, serialized in a British magazine.

Heart of darkness

The edition of HoD I first read.

There’s a simple, almost unbelievable fact hidden in the above paragraph. Conrad was Polish, did not learn English until he was in his twenties, and always spoke with a marked Polish accent. Yet he wrote in English. He didn’t write in his native language and then have it translated, he wrote some of the greatest prose in English, in English. Writing in a second language is hard enough; but to produce masterpieces in it (he also wrote Lord Jim and The Secret Agent, among other classics) is almost too extraordinary for words.

I came to Heart of Darkness via Apocalypse Now, which I saw on my sixteenth birthday during its original theatrical run. While I loved movies, I never realized until I saw this one that movies could be both art and entertainment. My previous experiences with “art” films were that they were long, boring, hard to understand, sometimes (given the video technology of the time) literally hard to see. I assumed there was a dichotomy between entertaining films like (inevitably) Star Wars and more “artistic” faire such as The Seventh Seal. But Apocalypse Now showed me that a movie could be both.

And the movie led me to Conrad’s novella. Briefly, it’s about a steamship captain, Marlowe, going up a river in Africa to find Mr. Kurtz, an ivory trader who has set himself up as a god to the natives. I’ve read it countless times, and like every great book, I find something new to like each time.

I’ve also listened to it on audio, back when I had a job with a commute. It’s been read by many different people, including some (Richard “John-Boy” Thomas) who really should’ve know better. But Anthony Quayle’s version remains my favorite, even though it’s abridged, because he brings it to life in such a dynamic way, as if he were actually telling the story to the people gathered on the deck of the Nellie.

So what’s so great about Heart of Darkness? First, it’s about the nature, and the uses, of truth. It’s also a compelling description of colonialism, written by someone who had been there. Mr. Kurtz is one of the great shadow-figures of literature: like Dracula, he’s talked about much more than he’s seen, and when he does appear, it’s riveting. The structure is interesting as well, a nesting story told in first-person by someone relating Marlowe’s first-person tale to the rest of those on the Nellie.

My favorite line, perhaps because of the way Quayle reads it, remains, “I had immense plans!” and that’s a huge part of the appeal. Kurtz does aim incredibly high, which makes his fall that much more dramatic; when he says, “The horror! The horror!” he’s not kidding. Marlowe’s own position as observer changes with one line at the climax, forcing the reader to suddenly re-evaluate everything s/he thought s/he knew about the character.

But ultimately, what speaks to me (and to a lot of other people for the last century or so) can’t be broken down into simple elements. Heart of Darkness either speaks to you, or it doesn’t. If it does, you know what I’m talking about. And if you’ve never read it, I encourage you to give it a shot. You can read it for free online here.

How Have Things Changed?

Posted on by Alex in Blood Groove, Sword-Edged Blonde, Wisp of a Thing, writers, writing | 2 Comments

A while back, fan Keith Johnson asked a deceptively simple question: “How has your writing changed from your first book to the last one?”

This is what my desk looks like as I write this blog post.

As I’ve explained elsewhere, my first published novel, The Sword-Edged Blonde, was an idea I’d nursed from 1980 to its publication in 2007. My second novel, Blood Groove, as well as my most recent, Wisp of a Thing, were all written (at least in initial drafts) before I was published, so their composition had the luxury of time.

That meant that I could write them, put them aside, come back to them with a fresh mental palate (sometimes after years) and revise/polish them some more. This became a crucial part of my process, and it’s something I recommend in my writing classes. Some writers produce almost perfectly finished first drafts, but most of us need to revise, and to do that, we need the objectivity only time away from a project can really provide. And luckily, that’s easy to get when you’re unpublished.

Now, though, I typically contract for a novel before I start writing. After all, now it’s my job, no longer just a hobby. I might produce an outline, or even a vague proposal, but the actual writing commences once I know someone’s going to pay me for it. And I’m just one part of the machine (a crucial one, I like to think). Publishing is an industry, a business, and other professionals (cover designers, marketers, etc.) depend on me completing my part on time. This means deadlines, which luckily I learned to respect as a reporter.

That’s why I work with the editor to set a deadline that allows me to do the best work I can; after all, they don’t want a crappy book any more than I do. And I try to build into that schedule a chance to finish the draft, put it aside for a while, and then come back to it fresh for revision. I don’t get years for it anymore; I have to settle for weeks.

But the important thing is to clear my head of the project, so to help with that, I try to work on something totally unrelated.  For example, I recently finished a draft of a horror novel I wrote “on spec,” which means it’s not contracted for with any publisher; it was simply a story I wanted to tell. Now I’m working on the third novel in my Tufa series, Long Black Curl, as different a story as there could be. By the time I finish that first draft of this, I’ll be ready to go back to the horror novel, which in turn will help clear the ol’ palate for revising Long Black Curl.

So the big change has been creating a structure in which the things I know I need–time away from a project, for example–are part of the process.  That way I don’t have to beg for more time, or turn in an unsatisfactory (to me, at least) final draft.

Or, to put it another way, now everything counts.

Now, how has the actual writing changed? I don’t know. I truly hope I’ve gotten better. But only readers can say.

Thanks for the question, Keith!

How Long Should a Series Run?

Posted on by Alex in Eddie LaCrosse, series, writers, writing | 5 Comments

My friend (and fan) Richard Garrison asked me, “Kevin Smith of Clerks fame has stopped making movies, claiming the ‘tank was empty.’ A lot of writers continue a series well past it’s arc in some cases to meet reader demands, in some cases to pay the bills. When you start a series, do you see the end of the arc, or do you continue as long as you feel the material is entertaining and relevant?”

DSCF1874

 

We’ve all read those series that continued past their sell-by dates, and we’ve all understood the motivation for them: money. In my lifetime, I saw one of my favorite series, the Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker, start to stutter and miss as he tried to meet the one-book-a-year deadline up until he passed away. On the other hand, another of my favorites, Andrew Vachss’ Burke series, came to a definite conclusion after 18 books, a feat of will and artistic courage I still admire.

To answer your question, though, we have to break down the concept of “series” into its two incarnations. One is the linked, continuing series, in which each book is part of a larger story. The other is the series of individual books, each of which can be read on its own, but often provides a larger picture when the whole series is read.

As a reader, and apparently a cranky old one at that, I don’t really enjoy the former. Too many times a series that should have run for three or four books at the most, instead runs to ten, twelve, twenty books. I hear many readers complaining that this or that volume doesn’t really advance the story, but simply eats up time and page count. And nothing is more annoying that seeing a book that looks interesting, only to read on the cover that it’s Vol. III of Hfuhruhurr Continuum, and virtually impossible to follow if you haven’t read the first two books (I call this the “Babylon 5 Effect”).

When I first planned the Eddie LaCrosse series, I knew that’s what I wanted to avoid. So from the conception, the idea was that each book could be picked up and enjoyed by anyone, new reader or old. If you’re a loyal reader, of course, you get little rewards that a first-timer would miss by seeing characters change, settings alter and so forth. But it’s important to me that any of my books be open to that first-time reader who thinks, “That looks interesting.”

Now, did I plan an overall arc for the series? Er…sort of. I want each book to differ in setting and tone, and to show us something about Eddie we haven’t seen before. As long as I can do that to my satisfaction, I’ll keep writing them as long as people want to read them. That said, I do know what the final book will be. I even know what the final line of the final book will be. But it’s up to the reading public to decide when, or if, I ever get to write that one.

Thanks for the question, Richard, and I hope you enjoyed the answer!

Announcing the First Original Tufa Song

Posted on by Alex in Hum and the Shiver, music, Tufa | Leave a comment

 

971945_672096752824553_1167376490_n

There might be cooler things in the world than a band you really like, writing brand-new songs based on your novels. But at the moment, I can’t imagine what. Here’s Tuatha Dea premiering their original song, “The Hum and the Shiver.”

 

The Only Good Musical is About Actual Musicians

Posted on by Alex in Eddie and the Cruisers, filmmaking, movies, music | 9 Comments

Although music forms a huge part of many of my novels, I don’t, as a rule, like traditional musicals. People bursting into song, unless it’s played for laughs (as in Cannibal: the Musical, an early film by South Park’s creators), overwhelms my suspension of disbelief. Even something as monumentally clever as Little Shop of Horrors stops dead (and never recovers) for the cliche ballad, “Suddenly Seymour.”

What I do like are movies about musicians, especially rock and roll musicians. They provide a realistic context for all that singing and dancing. And the best ones feature music that tells its own story, that fits seamlessly into the tale being told during the non-singing bits.

Here are a few great ones that you might not have heard about. (I’m not going to get into biopics like Walk the Line, Ray or Great Balls of Fire, or movies where stars play themselves, like A Hard Day’s Night and Purple Rain. Those are separate topics.)

Eddie and the Cruisers, from 1984.

Eddie and the Cruisers, from 1984.

My favorite is probably Eddie and the Cruisers. You can read my thoughts on the novel here. The movie, while shying from the book’s more interesting concepts, presents many scenes (and a lot of dialogue) verbatim, and it does a good job capturing the book’s atmosphere. The music, by East Coast native John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, is also top-notch, embodying the Jersey Shore sound (back when that term had nothing to do with some of the worst people ever to make millions on TV) and yeah, echoing early Springsteen, but if you’re doing a movie about a legendary New Jersey rock star, that’s hard to avoid. Still, not everyone loves it, so I’d recommend making your own decision.

A close second is Phantom of the Paradise, Brian de Palma’s classic glam-rock parody. Paul Williams, who also plays the film’s villain, composed all the songs, and they’re wonderful in the way they reference both the plot and each other (“Faust,” a deadpan parody of serious singer-songwriters, is itself parodied within the film by “Upholstery”). And each musical number is, for the most part, set up so that there’s always “source” music (i.e., an onscreen explanation for where the music is coming from), something you seldom get in traditional musicals.

Grace of my Heart is loosely based on the life of Carole King, from her Brill Building years as a songwriter through her breakthrough as a performer. In an inspired bit of forethought, the music is written by pairs of songwriters: one Sixties veteran working with a newcomer (i.e., Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello). And since the protagonist is also a songwriter, the film gives you a great idea of how these things were (and are) done. The movie itself constantly inverts expectations: for example, Denise (Illeana Douglas at her best) is introduced to Cheryl (Patsy Kensit), another songwriter whom everyone (including the audience) expects to be a rival; instead, they become best friends.

The Idolmaker is Taylor Hackford’s classic story of a guy who’s got everything except the looks to be a star, so he fashions first his cousin, then a busboy, into prefab teen idols. The music was originally supposed to be done by Phil Spector, but (surprise) he proved unreliable, so Jeff Barry stepped in at the last minute. And if this is how Barry responds to pressure, then he should be given unrealistic deadlines more often. Of the five onscreen numbers, three of them are absolutely fantastic in both musical terms, and as scenes in the story.

It’s interesting that all these movies are, from a contemporary perspective, period pieces, some on purpose (like The Idolmaker) and some, though current at their release, through the passage of time (like Phantom of the Paradise). It seems as if movies about or starring today’s musicians, like most modern pop music itself, has lost its passion.

What musicals about musicians would you add?

A Halloween treat from the Bledsoe family

Posted on by Alex in Blood Groove, family, Firefly Witch, Girls with Games of Blood, Halloween, music, video trailer | 3 Comments

Here’s a little treat…or is it a trick?…from us to you. Hope you enjoy!

Just in time for Halloween: new Firefly Witch stories!

Posted on by Alex in eBook sale, Firefly Witch, short stories, writing | Leave a comment

Three new stories featuring Tanna Tully, a.k.a. Lady Firefly, have arrived just in time for the quintessential witches’ holiday, Halloween (or Samhain, if you want to be technical about it). Here’s a bit about The Book of Cunning Women.

Cunning Women Front Cover FINAL 1000 Pixels

In “The Mischief Shades,” she investigates a seemingly light-hearted haunting borne of a ghastly tragedy that hits surprisingly close to home; in “Tourist Trap,” a friend’s suicide attempt exposes something long buried in a local park; and in “The Book of Cunning Women,” an artifact that could change history has to be pried from the selfish grasp of a popular novelist in the heart of Southern Gothic country, New Orleans.

This collection is available on Kindle, and will soon be on Nook, Kobe and all the other usual platforms.

And if you like it, please leave an honest review at the site of your choice.