Category Archives: imagination

The Albatross

Remember the story of the intrusive old woman who went on a B&E and vandalism spree, breaking into the Three Bears’ home and trashing their stuff?* Not long before she was brutally punished for that series of offenses, she discovered that some of the Bears’ food and furnishings were not too big, and not too small, but just right.

That’s how I feel about Redemption Road, a story I have come to think of as my albatross, a story I may never be able to sell.

I just sent the albatross off to another publisher, but I’m not holding my breath that they will take it.

Redemption Road is as dear to my heart as it is a hard sell, because [1] it is a mix of surreal horror and Christian mythology (think LOST if written by Stephen King for the tone of the story), and [2] it has a plot line that is hard to to summarize (what the hell is that squiggle up in the sky, and what is the deal with the three-legged dog?) which would make selling it to an anthology with a set theme a real challenge, and [3] it has a 42,000 word count, which means it was born in an unincorporated part of Storyland on that dangerous turf between Novella Town and Novel City, and that has always been a troublesome place. For a lot of publishers it isn’t worth the work that would go into a full novel, but it would take a lot more commitment from a publisher and a reader than a short story. There is also the chance that Redemption Road is a steaming pile of human waste, but positive feedback from complete strangers makes me doubt that.

I could have cheated and padded the story with pointless bullshit (I’ll pause for the inevitable shout of, “Isn’t that what you do with all of your stories, Swain?”), or cut out material I thought was important (“Let me be the judge of that,” said every editor ever), but in the end the story is its own thing. It ends when it ends, and there isn’t a whole lot I can do about it.

And as much as I bitch about it, I truly love my albatross. If I didn’t love it I could have cut it down or overworked it until it conformed to a certain standard, but I didn’t. It’s pure story, and since I write for me first, it’s a part of me; the gruesome deaths, the bizarre landscape, the unanswered questions, and even that goddamned rocketship.**

Do you have an albatross? If so, let me hear about it – and let me hear if you’ve had success selling novellas too!

Don’t Ignore that bird hanging around your neck – wear it with pride! And keep trying to sell it every chance you get.

Gustave Doré, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1876).

*This is referring to the original version of the story we know as Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Eleanor Mure’s 1831 tale that ended with the disgruntled ursians trying unsuccessfully to burn the old woman alive, and then drown her, and in what can only be seen as a final act of frustration, flinging the intruder into the air and impaling her on the steeple of St. Paul’s. Jesus!!!

*The rocketship is the power of hope, the last thing an artist will ever let go of.

On Spoilers, and the Self-Flagellatory Joy of ‘The Wait’

There’s a video going around online that features 5 minutes of footage from The Force Awakens, a video made up of scenes from trailers, all of it stitched together in chronological order. This is just another form of spoiler, and with Star Wars, spoiler-fever always hits a peak.

When it comes to spoilers, I always say NO THANK YOU.

I work hard to avoid spoilers. I have no problem with teasers and trailers showing random scenes, but other than that I want to wait until the movie comes out to see where the movie takes me. I want to be delighted, and surprised, and feel sad, and get excited, and shout holy shit! when something awesome happens. I want to do all of that instead of shrugging and saying, “Yeah, I knew that was coming,” like some blasé dipstick. I want to enjoy the wait.

If you let the story unfold as the creators intended to present it, I promise you that you won’t be disappointed. What will disappoint you is bypassing the agonizing pleasure of the wait to feed the beast called instant gratification. That will lead to you becoming jaded, and impossible to please.

When the first Star Wars film came out there was no internet; all we had back then was the rare TV show that might make passing mention of something George Lucas said, or sci-fi-geek magazines like Starlog, and the information on what was to come was thin and scattershot at best. Only a relative few of us cared enough to want to know more, because at that point sci-fi fandom’s big bang had not yet occurred (and I’d argue that the first Star Wars trilogy was the prime mover in that social movement, but back then admitting that you really dug things like Star Wars and Star Trek would get you the same looks as if you admitted you liked jacking off to Casper the Friendly Ghost comics).

After A New Hope blew the minds of kids all around the world, the few details we learned about what might lie ahead—in that limbo between episodes IV and V—proved to be way off the mark, as were curiosities like Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.*

Kids like me went nuts speculating on what future Star Wars films might bring us, and in my case it fueled my imagination even further, because I was already making shit up, and making shit up is one of the most fantastic, amusing, liberating, and empowering things you can do at any age.

I think my best buddy Pete Donaldson was equally fired up; while I wrote absolutely atrocious sci-fi tales that must never see the light of day (and I’m sure a few of you are saying, “What makes you think anything has changed, Swain?”),  Pete built an impressive spaceship from scrap model airplane parts and other bits and pieces he tossed together. We were exercising our imaginations, and that made the torment of the wait vastly entertaining.

The situation was even worse between episodes V and VI, when viewers were left hanging after The Empire Strikes Back concluded with what is arguably the best cliffhanger in the history of American cinema. The wait for the release of Return of the Jedi was excruciating, and now that I look back on it, delightful. I was in my 20s by that time, but my imagination ran rampant whenever I thought of how much the Star Wars universe had been expanded with just two movies, and how much more it could grow, and when I finally stood in line to see the last episode in that trilogy, I felt like a little kid again.

Never underestimate the power of waiting for a thing to be. Waiting is important, it gives the thing you are waiting for weight, and in some cases the wait can be the best part of the experience because your imagination is firing on all cylinders.

Kids, don’t do spoilers. Daydream. Sketch. Build. Create. Write some embarrassing fanfic, or a really good story. Alan Dean Foster’s aforementioned Splinter of the Mind’s Eye proved to be way off the mark, it was still a great tale.

IMAGINE. Work the muscle that is your mind, and when the wait is over and you finally watch the opening crawl for Star Wars Episode VII, you will have primed your mind for a peak experience.

Trust me on this. I wouldn’t lie to you. Not where Star Wars is concerned.

spoilers VS wait

* Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, on Amazon.

We CAN blame the writer on this one…

I’ll usually be the first person to defend a writer when a story that sounds good on paper turns to shit on the screen. Not this time, not after watching the series finale to CSI…

When CSI first came out I watched it because it was visually different, the hyperactive editing, supersaturated palate and often extremely graphic nature of the visuals making for irresistible eye-candy, but I eventually tired of it because it was too much procedural and not enough character driven TV, and as a writer I like character driven stories. I held out with the show until William Petersen left, and I stopped watching after that, and in truth, the show never again reached the heights of the season 5 episode directed by Quentin Tarantino, the one with Nick Stokes buried alive. That was some damn good TV.

Anyhow, I watched the two-part series finale last night, and it was abysmal. I don’t know how they got Petersen to come back for such utter tripe. I can only assume he felt he owned it to the show that made him comfortably rich, because I sure as hell couldn’t see any other reason for him to be there. If you were thinking of watching this last two-part tale, skip it. It was almost depressing, with a lackluster plot (centered around Lady Heather, the most boring character the show has ever had—please, Hollywood, enough with shows featuring smart guys bewitched by vapid dominatrixes) and even worse, a Villain from Nowhere.

Use of the Villain from Nowhere is a cardinal sin because [1] it is lazy writing, and [2] it always sucks balls, but it is especially egregious here. The production team had 15 YEARS of Crime Scene Investigation to draw inspiration from, and this was the best they could do? To hell with that! You need to pay homage to what has gone before, and if you can’t find a suitable baddie from past years, why not have one of the established cast members snap and turn into a psycho killer? Shit, the show was over anyway, so trash the fucking stage on your way out! God knows some of the characters had been through hell and back, and could be believably unhinged.

Imagine Jim Brass going off the deep end and quietly mumbling one-liners like, “Let me give you a .45 caliber reminder of what is happening here,” while blowing people away, and then using his knowledge of crime scenes to evade detection? That would have kicked nine kinds of ass.

But no, instead of going out with a bang, this once groundbreaking show went out with a whimper.

[It was almost as offensive as the very last episode of Enterprise. Almost. But no finale will ever be as shockingly, inappropriately awful as These are the Voyages, and that wound will never heal. Yes, I’m looking at you, Brannon goddamned Braga.]

I guess the smartest cast members may have been George Eads and Elizabeth Shue, both of whom turned down the chance to take one last spin across the blood-spattered floor, probably after reading that pathetic excuse for a script.

The CSI finale was an absolute failure, and this time there is no one to blame but the writer.

PIC – George Eads and Elizabeth Shue are unable to even FAKE enthusiasm while hearing show creator and abomination birther Anthony E. Zuiker’s pitch for the CSI finale.
George Eads and Elizabeth Shue are unable to even FAKE any enthusiasm while enduring show creator and abomination birther Anthony E. Zuiker’s pitch for the unforgivable CSI series finale.

Writing is hard… but it should also be fun.

Sometimes a typo made in the white-heat of writing is permission to take a moment and have a little fun. I know you’re busy, and I know you have a deadline, but sometimes you just have to blow off some steam and do something silly… even if you delete it and get back to business a moment later.

Thanks to clumsy fingers and autocorrect I misspelled ghoulish in this passage, and then realized it was the perfect excuse for a bit of whimsy in a busy day. Never pass up an opportunity like this.


Ride Your Crazy Like A Horse

When you get right down to it, most writers are probably crazy. Seriously. Wouldn’t we HAVE to be a bit crazy to spend a good part of our all-too-short life span actively involved in the lives of imaginary people who exist in made-up places? My fellow writers will no doubt deny this, but denial is always the first sign you have a problem, and in saying that, I have just burdened my crazy writer friends with a circular logic trap that will drive them crazier than ever.

For some odd reason it seems in vogue to say ‘oh I’m so crazy hahahaha’ when you really aren’t. It is just said to impress, the same way the most painfully insipid individuals will insist to all and sundry, ‘Oh, I’m zany and wacky!!!’

Crazy is the new cool.

Just as some smoking-hot chick who once caught a few minutes of a Star Trek rerun on TV  will put on a pair of glasses from the Marcello Mastroianni Collection and insist she is now a nerd, people will go to great lengths to insist they are crazy by displaying affected mannerisms or posting the occasional monosyllabic outburst online.*

These poseurs don’t seem to understand that one does not simply spritz on a little crazy like a perfume or cologne. Crazy runs deep, my friends. Deep and dark and occasionally… ridiculous.

And the richest vein of crazy running through a writer may not be madness at all, but a shocking clarity of insight. Maybe the characters we write about are actual people who exist somewhere in the multitude of parallel universes. Maybe we are just attuned to these characters, these faraway people. We don’t create them and bring them together and name their children and separate them and kill them off with that cold half smile that puts off our family and friends when we are off and away and wandering the Story Zone, no, we are simply reporters, describing real events occurring in a place only we can access.

Is that idea so crazy?

Most of my friends have heard me mention my dislike of water before. I can swim, barely, but I don’t swim because I once nearly drowned as a kid (in an event that may also have had a paranormal aspect, but that’s another story) . . . and now I know beyond a shadow of doubt that the water nearly got me.

To this day I most sincerely believe that water knows things and that all water shares what it knows; it evaporates, it moves elsewhere, it condenses, it rains down. And it passes on everything it learns.

It was only a matter of time before every drop of water on Earth could chortle with malicious anticipation whenever I’d go near it, saying, “It’s him, look, it’s him, GET HIM!” in soft splooks and splinks, if I did so much as dip a toe in a bathtub (which is why I take showers instead).

Now I avoid the water as much as I can, which takes effort, because I spend half my time between a large bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Water is out to get me, any way it can. And the ways of water are most wicked, my friend.

As I was standing on the BART train platform this morning and trying not to think about the fact that I ride through more than three miles of tunnel under San Francisco Bay twice daily (and simple physics suggests that seeing the results of a rupture in the Transbay Tube would be similar to watching ants being flushed down a toilet bowl), I popped the cap on a fresh bottle of spring water and took a small sip.

A small sip.

A raging jet of ice cold water shot up both nostrils and all over my shirt.

A couple of ladies who get on the same train car every morning gave me their usual pitying look that said there’s the village imbecile at it again as I ground my teeth and tried not to shout obscenities.

How do you explain what happened? How? A muscle spasm? A sudden increase in air pressure around the bottle? A poltergeist?

No . . .

It was the water, my friends. The water. The water that is the same everywhere, the water that still remembers having a terrified ten year old in its grasp, the water that burns with a furious, frustrated rage over the loss of the squirming morsel it nearly swallowed, the water that will do anything to finish that foul task begun so long ago.

As I stood on the train platform, the water tried to drown me.

Am I crazy, or am I revealing a great, undiscovered truth?

Am I crazy, or just imagining that ordinary water is actually a malignant intelligence?

In the end, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all.

As long as I keep writing stories fueled by ‘crazy’ thoughts.

And keep away from the water.

*To my fellow nerds who actually SUFFERED for their nerd status in school I say we rise up and take that word back because we EARNED it with every drop of hair grease, oh-my-god-I-actually-have-to-engage-in-social-interaction flop sweat, and pimple pus.

 one does not spritz 3

(This first appeared on JXM’s Dark Red Press blog in August of 2011)