Monday, October 31, 2005

In the dark

I've been dreaming in the night
Shadows on the window
--Dave Matthews Band, "Halloween"
Since 1986, Daylight Savings Time has ended on the Sunday before Halloween, ensuring that the spookiest holiday brings with it an ominous early nightfall. But Congress in its eternal wisdom has decreed that beginning in 2007, Daylight Savings Time will last until the first Sunday in November. One of the "benefits" of this change, lawmakers claim, is that kids can now go trick-or-treating during daylight hours.

Huh? This is a good thing?

Darkness is the whole point of Halloween. It's like having a white Christmas, or a sunny Easter morning, except that the latter two are a matter of luck for people in temperate climates. But night always comes. And when night falls, Halloween begins.

The holiday has been a matter of controversy in recent years, with some folks claiming that it glorifies evil and constitutes a religious celebration (that religion being Satanism). A more secular viewpoint counters that Halloween is harmless fun, a chance to eat candy and play dress-up, and that we shouldn't take it so seriously.

My opinion, as always, lies somewhere in the middle.

Halloween is about the darkest elements of our lives: fear and death. More importantly, fear of death. The ancient Celts celebrated Halloween's forerunner, Samhain, the time when the barriers between this world and the next were thinnest, the time when the souls of the dead walked the earth to be entertained by the living.

Halloween lets us play with our fear of death. By bringing the ultimate mystery out into the open and ritualizing it with costumes and scary tales, we can face our mortality in the comfort of a community celebration. Fear in the context of fantasy is manageable, even empowering. We can revel in the things that would otherwise turn our stomachs or freeze our blood, knowing that they're not real. We can even be the things we fear most, thus rendering them powerless.

Those of us who celebrate Christmas need Halloween for balance, in the same way we need Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday; Easter and Good Friday.

Halloween shouldn't be condemned as an invitation to the devil, and it shouldn't be sanitized as a bland, meaningless "harvest festival." Either view misunderstands both its origins and its spiritual purpose in our lives today.

Halloween is our one night to dance with the shadows, knowing the sun will rise tomorrow.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Sky dresses up for Halloween

This week Mars is passing closer to Earth than it will for another 13 years. Check it out in the eastern sky after sunset, a steady pumpkin-colored point of light.

Dust storms on the planet (Mars, that is) are some of the most intense ever recorded and should be visible through most backyard telescopes. Check out for some cool pics.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Sane people everywhere rejoice

Dr. Strangelove: It is not only possible, it is essential.
The Bush Administration has dropped its plans (for now) for a nuclear 'bunker-busting' weapon, after the House of Representatives wouldn't approve $4M for it. Some people worried that it would send the wrong message to the rest of the world and result in nuclear proliferation.

But I guess the Administration figured we'd just 'bunker-bust' anyone who thought about getting their own play-nukes. Hey, freedom's on the march! So what if the road is paved with dead bodies?

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Crow expert on Diane Rehm Show

This past Tuesday one of the authors of the new book In the Company of Crows and Ravens held a fascinating discussion with NPR's Diane Rehm. University of Washington wildlife sciences professor John Marzluff, who wrote the book with freelance artist and writer Tony Angell (whose ink-on-ceramic drawings are gorgeous), talked about the ways that crow and human cultures have influenced each other throughout the centuries.

You can listen to it here (scroll down and click on the RealPlayer or Windows Media links to the right).

Obviously I ordered the book right away. One of the authors' main focuses* is the interdependence of the human and animal worlds. Since crows and humans are among the most social animals, we have a lot to learn from each other.

For instance, crows still haven't figured out the infield fly rule, and we have yet to understand why they steal the rubber strips off windshield wipers.

*I hate the word 'foci'--I always think it should rhyme with 'bocce'

Say it's So, Joe

I love a good redemption story.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Counting the dead

As everyone is probably by now aware, U.S. military deaths in Iraq have passed the 2,000 mark. Apparently one out of four is a National Guard citizen-soldier.

This AP article reminds us that it could be worse: we could be the invadees rather than the invaders.

5 hours, 41 minutes

I just finishing watching the longest game in World Series history.

They've really gotta start imposing "delay of game" penalties in baseball. I know they can't take away yards, but maybe they could make fielders stand on one foot or something. Every time the coach or catcher moseys out to the mound to chat with the pitcher, the team loses a leg of their choice.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Rough Guide to Science Fiction Films

As I continue to revise my screenplay, we'll keep talkin' movies instead of books. Novelist, film critic and long-time blogger John Scalzi has a new book out: The Rough Guide to Science Fiction Films. The most talked-about item is his canon of 50 Most Significant SF Films.

A fun meme going around several of the internets involves posting the list and emboldenating the ones you've seen. So here's my version of the list:

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!
Back to the Future
Blade Runner
Bride of Frankenstein
Brother From Another Planet
A Clockwork Orange
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The Damned
Destination Moon
The Day The Earth Stood Still
Escape From New York
ET: The Extraterrestrial
Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers (serial)
The Fly (1985 version)
Forbidden Planet
Ghost in the Shell
The Incredibles
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 version)
Jurassic Park
Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior
The Matrix
On the Beach
Planet of the Apes (1968 version)
Solaris (1972 version)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
The Stepford Wives
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
The Thing From Another World
Things to Come
12 Monkeys
28 Days Later
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
2001: A Space Odyssey
La Voyage Dans la Lune
War of the Worlds (1953 version)

Try it yourself! The hardest part for me was figuring out which B-movies I'd seen as a child. The second hardest part was not complaining that he left off Dark City. But some would say that Metropolis counts.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Top 100 Movie quotes

I've obviously been catching up on my Creative Screenwriting e-newsletters lately, the source of several of my last Not-About-Me posts.

Here's another: the American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 Movie Quotes.

Wait! Before you click through, try to guess what the #1 quote is. Hint: It's not from Road House.

P.S.: If you love movies, you might enjoy the CS Weekly e-newsletter I mentioned above. It's packed (packed! I say) with up-to-date Hollywood news, reviews of the latest theatrical and DVD releases, and some great interviews with filmmakers. It's free, so ya might as well try it.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Submission update

It's been nearly 60 hours since my editor received the manuscript of The Eyes of Crow, and she has yet to appear on my doorstep to deliver her own personal Slap-O-Gram.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Louise, Part 2

In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.
--Terry Pratchett
Turns out Louise wasn't so hot with cats, so she went back to the temporary foster home where she lived before we got her. Don't worry: this lady adores Louise so much she's considering adopting her.

We'll all miss the little girl--except the cats, of course. I think they're feeling a little smug today.

Click "Submit" and cringe

My editor at Luna Books received the manuscript for The Eyes of Crow today (eleven days early--probably the last deadline I'll ever meet).

Am I nervous? Why, no.

It's not as if they took a big chance on a new writer who had only published one e-book with what could charitably be called a "cult following." It's not as if I've already spent the first part of my advance. It's not as if I wrote the second half of the novel in such a sprint that plotlines and character arcs began to untie themselves and flop around like shoelaces on a Nike knockoff, and I can only pray that I caulked the worst of the cracks in my latest draft.* It's not as if my whole career depends on this book. It's not as if--

Oh, dammit. It's as if. All of it.

My editor said she had some open time in her schedule, so she might start reading it this weekend. (In case anyone's curious, editors and agents nearly always have to read submissions on their own time. They don't spend their days at the office kickin' back with a good book.)

As for me, I will spend this weekend adding strength and dimension to one of the main characters in my screenplay. It's only 112 pages long, which gives me room to add a scene or two to show why the hell my main character falls in love with her in the first place.

*At this bar, the metaphors are stirred, not shaken.

UPDATE: Friday, 7:46 PM. Nearly 3 hours into the weekend, my editor has still not called to tell me she's shoving my contract down the garbage disposal. Yay!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Top 10 cliched script openings

Whew! I haven't written any of these.

At least, not yet. But I can't imagine myself ever doing #8.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Louise, Part 1

Our new foster dog arrived this afternoon. Her name is Louise, and the picture doesn't do her justice. She's a smiley, waggy-tailed little girl who seems to love everyone. She appears to be housebroken, cat- and dog-friendly, and overall very well-behaved, to the point where I'm worried I won't get much comedic material out of the experience. Oh well.

Louise came from a shelter in Louisiana, where she was pulled from her home after Hurricane Katrina. It's obvious she's had puppies recently, though she's still a baby herself. Unfortunately her puppies were never found.

More later. Right now the dogs want to go outside and rumble.


Monday, October 17, 2005

Coming soon: Arquette-ization

I was going to blog about my Capclave experience today, but I've still got a headache from the sustained effort of Trying Not to Act Like a Dork, both at the con and at the family wedding the night before. Like a lot of writers, I don't get out much, so it can be a challenge to speak to actual people (the ones in my head don't count) without embarrassing myself.

So today I just give you this and hope it changes your life.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Our next foster

We're not sure yet, but we think we'll be getting a new foster dog (our first since March) this Sunday. It might be Rider or Louise. Both dogs were among the thousands of animals left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. Our rescue organization, Tails of Hope, is holding all Katrina animals for 30 days before offering them for adoption. We hope the original owners, if they're able, will come forward to claim them in the next month.

Got a wedding tonight, then a convention tomorrow, so no more time to chat. If you're in the Baltimore/DC area, come out and see me at Capclave.

Have great weekends, y'all.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

No more pauses for Pinter

I am both deeply engaged in art and deeply engaged in politics and sometimes those two meet and sometimes they don't.
--playwright, screenwriter and poet Harold Pinter
I was psyched to see that one of my favorite playwrights, Harold Pinter, just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. My senior year at Villanova I took a course on Modern British Drama, and The Homecoming was one of the best things I'd ever read. Back then I hated reading novels (the kinds of novels English majors have to read, at least) and could take or leave poetry, but adored reading plays.

Which is odd, considering they're not written to be read. Perhaps my penchant for plays explains my knack for dialogue and frustration with inner monologues and long descriptive passages. I haaaaate having to explain how a character feels. It feels so artificial. I prefer to show it through action or dialogue. In all of Requiem I had only one paragraph where Lucifer stood still and ruminated on a problem. One paragraph, and I tried so hard to take it out.

That's one reason why I love screenwriting. What does the character feel? Let the actor decide! What does the setting look like? Let the production designer decide! And in a screenplay, I never ever have to describe what something smells like.

Where was I? Oh, Harold Pinter. He's cool.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Laaa-laa, la-la-la-BOOM!

War, huh!
Good God, y'all
What is it good for?
--Edwin Starr, "War"
Now we know the answer to that question.

On today's edition of Whatever Happened to... , I give you one of the most disturbing images to come out of the raging inferno known as global war.

The caption for the picture, from a UNICEF Belgium campaign, reads, "Don't let war destroy a child's world."
"We see so many images that we don't really react anymore," said Julie Lamoureux, account director at Publicis, an advertising agency that drew up the campaign for UNICEF Belgium. "In 35 seconds we wanted to show adults how awful war is by reaching them within their memories of childhood."
Uh, lady? Anyone who doesn't react to images of real children caught in a real war is not going to feel sorry for a bunch of cartoon characters. And for those of us who harbor a certain animosity towards said cartoon characters, well, it makes war look pretty satisfying.

I always knew those little blue bastards would draw down unholy hell upon their heads one day. It must have been all the singing...

(Special thanks to CNN's Anderson Cooper for coining the term "Smurf-ageddon")

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Help victims of S. Asia earthquake

We can all sink or we can float
‘Cuz we’re all in the same big boat
It may seem a milion miles away
But it gets a little closer every day
One world is enough
For all of us
--The Police, “One World (Not Three)”
The Network for Good has a list of international organizations that are aiding the thousands of victims of last weekend's earthquake. Out of those listed, my first two choices would be Episcopal Relief and Development (gotta plug my Church) and Doctors Without Borders, who won the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize for their tremendous work helping people in need regardless of politics or culture.

It seems like less attention is being devoted to this tragedy than last year's tsunami. Are we all feeling post-Katrina disaster fatigue? It's hard not to turn away from the Kashmiris' unimaginable suffering after all we saw last month. But if you can help even a little, please consider it.

That's all. G'night.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Quick music poll #1

It's late, and I should have posted hours ago. I'm polishing a proposal and getting ready for Capclave this weekend, so I only have time to get your feelings on one important question:

Whose music has held up better over the years, Def Leppard or the Skorpions?

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Halloween Books

The Night Country is as much about being haunted by guilt, doubt, and responsibility as it is about being plagued by ghosts.
--Barnes & Noble Review
Before we get too deep into October, I'd like to recommend my favorite Halloween book, which I discovered last year. (Not a coincidence that it's my favorite, as I have a very short memory.)

The Night Country by Stewart O'Nan is a ghost story told by the spirits of three teenagers who died in a car crash on Halloween night. This eerie tale takes place one year later and gets inside the minds of those left behind--the police officer on the scene and the one teen who survived the accident intact (another suffered severe brain damage that completely altered his personality).

The novel isn't so much scary as it is poignant. It has great touches of dark humor that explore the personalities of the dead characters, who are as real to the reader as the living ones. It's just a beautiful novel.

I highly recommend listening to the audio version (you can get it from Amazon or your local library) as I did. The reader captures the attitudes and inflections of the teen narrator.

There's mine. What's your favorite Halloween book?

Friday, October 07, 2005

Ctrl-F for Frustration, Part 2

Adjectives on a typewriter
He moves his words like a prize fighter
The frenzied pace of a mind
Inside a cell
--Cake, "Shadow Stabbing"
Earlier this week I wrote about the tedious, ego-wilting process of replacing tired words in a manuscript, and how it sucked the life out of my ability to form complete sentences or even have an original thought. At the end of the post I promised to tell how I solved this problem.

Basically, I gave up.

Not in the long run, of course. In the next draft I've got another list of tired words to pare. But I had to take a break from the minutiae to keep my sanity. You know how they say, "Don't miss the forest for the trees"? I was missing the forest for the microscopic fungi in the bark.

So I put away the microscope and went to bed. I think it's important to separate serious editing sessions from serious writing sessions with a long sleep, if possible.

The next day (Monday) I rewrote a couple of scenes I'd been putting off and finally finished an acceptable third draft--or rather, a version 2.1. This I printed out and read Tuesday. My goal was to sniff out continuity errors resulting from the numerous substantial changes made over the last three weeks.

For example, one entire subplot had been rewritten, and subplots like to stretch their tentacles into distant sections of the book. If I changed one scene, sometimes three other scenes had to be changed, and so on, until I began to worry I'd ruined the whole thing.

However, this read-through boosted my spirits, for even though it was my third time reading the book, it held my attention from the first to last page. Which brings us to the forest: the story itself. If you can create compelling characters who encounter and overcome obstacles in a believable yet inspiring way, a few bits of fungus here and there aren't going to decimate the entire ecosystem.

However, the better I know the novel, the more I see its flaws. This happens. When you read your novel's first draft, you feel elated. You created something with a beginning, middle, and end that actually makes sense. You brought a new world to life. You are the greatest storyteller who ever lived. Yippee!

Savor this feeling, because it will fade with familiarity. Creative euphoria cannot survive the scrutiny of each word, sentence, and scene. In short, your self-infatuation will kneel before the diabolical power of Ctrl-F.

But in the end, writing is about giving the reader a great experience, not about making the author feel good. That's what beer is for.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Game On

Crawling out of the manuscript revision pit last night, I noticed that NHL hockey is back, with a few of its own revisions. So far the Caps are undefeated after one game, and one poor Leaf took a puck to the face and almost lost an eye.

After the strike and non-season last year, I didn't think I'd care, but now that it's returned, I'm sorta psyched. Although I find it creepy that Nashville has a hockey team but Winnipeg doesn't.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Ctrl-F for Frustration, Part 1

Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes.
--Theodore Dreiser
My least favorite part of manuscript revisions involves searching for what I call "tired words." All authors have them, little placeholders we toss in so we can hurry to the next sentence, the next thought. The character feels dismay? She sighs. Exasperation? She sighs. Uncertainty? She sighs, or perhaps shrugs.

Replacing tired words usually requires more than a synonym switch; often the best solution is to rewrite the sentence with a more vivid image. Specific actions reveal volumes about a character, and if your characters do nothing but sigh, shrug, smile, and occasionally clench a fist, they'll blend into a vague, vanilla-flavored mass, as indistinguishable from one another as ticketholders at a Donny & Marie concert.

The problems started when I did a "Find" (keyboard shortcut: Ctrl-F) on the word "could." I wanted to eliminate all instances of "She could feel" or "She could hear," etc. After all, if she could feel it, why not just write "She felt"? The fewer words, the better, right?*

I discovered that even though I'd only made the above mistake a handful of times, I used the word "could" a lot in my manuscript, sometimes several places on one page. I grew paranoid: was this an annoying literary tic or simply a verb tense? After all, the novel is written in past tense; I can't use the word "can" in place of "could."

Thus a word that usually flows along with its friends, not calling attention to itself, began to leap off the screen as if written in fuschia. My estimation of myself as a writer plummeted. Why do I use "could" so frequently? And what's with all these "the"'s and "a"'s? Isn't there a better word for "his"?

After several hours of this find-and-replace torture, I tried to write a new scene from scratch. Bad idea, because I was still wearing my "editor's hat." As each word appeared on the screen, it withered under scrutiny. English became a foreign language with an ever-dwindling lexicon. I could see the images in my mind but couldn't describe them without sounding like a third-grader's book report. Original thoughts seemed as elusive as something that's really elusive.


Stay tuned tomorrow to see how I solve this dilemma. I'm quite curious myself.

*Not always. Sometimes the rhythm of a sentence needs more words rather than fewer. Chopping sentences down to the bone might impart more meaning more efficiently, but readers don't just want information; we want the prose to sound nice inside our heads.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

A reluctant endorsement

A decree has gone out that all web pages must link to this candidacy, "under penalty of being forced to listen to the acoustic ruminations of Michael Bolton for 45 minutes."

Although General Zod's tribute requirements, threats of beheadings, and dogged pursuit of Superman trouble me, I like the fact that he'll end the war and provide universal health coverage. And in exchange for my vote, he'll allow me to live!


This Side of Salvation

This Side of Salvation, Jeri's new contemporary YA novel!

Now available in hardcover and ebook.

“A smart, well-rounded, and unpredictable tale...bringing to light issues of belief versus free will, spirit versus body, and family versus self.” —Booklist, **Starred Review**


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"Shattered," a Shade novella!

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Jeri Smith-Ready

Jeri Smith-Ready is a Maryland author of books for teens and adults.

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