Dreamt I attended a screening in a very large outdoor amphitheater of a newly unearthed work print of an unfinished _Lord of the Rings_ movie filmed in the late ’60s… and it was AWFUL. In order to appeal to the fucking hippies, the filmmakers removed Tom Bombadil and replaced him with some fucking longhair named “John the Bard” who looked like one of the Bugaloos and who sang groovy songs no doubt intended move lotsa units of the eventual soundtrack album. Groovy. The breaking point at which everyone got up and left en masse was when our heroes reached The Prancing Pony, and among the Hobbits there, in extra special cameo roles, were Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.

Really.

 

 

 

Yesterday, I bought a new fountain pen: a Lamy Extra Fine Safari in Charcoal Grey and some fresh bottles of ink (in the classic colors of blue, black, and blue/black). Yes, much in the way that Veronica in the Archie comics will feel better about the world when she impulsively buys shoes, I feel better when I impulsively buy stationery and pens. (Worth noting: on the Archie-inspired TV show Riverdale this week, Veronica mentioned using a Mont Blanc.)

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When I got home, I broke in the pen by working on a scene in the novel I’m working on, A Choir of Exiles, on my favorite kind of paper, old accountant ledgers.

 

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Why old accountant ledgers? I wrote about that here.

Though I should say that these aren’t old accountant ledgers, anymore. I took the truly old ledgers to a print shop and had them make me a box of new tablets to the exact specs of the old sheets on which I first started writing fiction when I was a scrawny teen in the late 1970s/ early 1980s who looked like this (pretentious beard and all):

High School Pic 1

And why fountain pens? I wrote about that here.

Here’s the current pile of A Choir of Exiles sheets I’ve been writing on said ledgers with said fountain pens, next to a bottle of absinthe for scale and to show that I’m still pretentious.

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But something occurred to me this morning… I never really thanked the person who introduced me to the joys of writing with a fountain pen, as opposed to the shitty ballpoints on which I’d learned to write cursive.

Anne Lindberg was a friend from college whom I’ve not seen in 31 years. Back then, I was busting my ass to to get a degree in History and Medieval Studies, taking a heavy load of classes that were very lecture-focused. Scribbling notes in ugly ballpoint (and sometimes felt-tip) while seated in those horrible plastic desks/chair hybrids took up most of my time. While we were hanging out in Anne’s dorm room one night, she gave me a fountain pen. Now, it was one of those basically disposable Sheaffer jobs that cost (as I recall) $2.95 back then, but I thought it was one of the most miraculous things I’d ever used. I couldn’t believe how the thing just skated over the paper when I took notes while in lectures, like these notes of mine from 1985, about Early Medieval Cosmology in De consolatione philosophiae by Boethius :

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By the way, did you see how I used the original Latin title of De consolatione philosophiae instead of just saying The Consolation of Philosophy? I told you I was still pretentious!

But back on point, the fact is, Anne taught me that the physical act of writing could be a  delight, that grinding a 19 cent, piece-of-shit pen into foolscap wasn’t the only way to commit words to some kind of permanence without typing. Since then, I’ve written probably a million words in fountain pen, maybe more. And for that, I owe her thanks.

So… wherever you are… thanks, Anne! Your random act of kindness to a college friend has had a lovely effect on my life and my craft.

 

stoopy

 

 

This is Stoopy, so named for his love of visiting people while they hang out on their stoops. He is the boss of my neighborhood in Boston, and looks upon all the humans living here as if he is their patron and boss… which he is. If your door is opened, he will calmly walk in to your place and make himself comfortable, often demanding turkey and other cold cuts before leaving. He walks around using the _exact_ center of the sidewalks, and only crosses the street at crosswalks, after looking both ways. Stoopy is Zen. Stoopy master of all he surveys. Be like Stoopy.

 

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Ordinarily when I write longhand, I use a Lamy Extra Fine Point fountain pen or a Shaeffer Extra Fine on old accountant ledgers. (Why old accountant ledgers? See this post: https://michaelmarano.com/category/lovecraft/) Why a fountain pen? I love the feel and flow of a fountain pen and, best of all, I love the scritching sound they make on paper. I use ballpoints all the time for note-taking and regular, everyday writing not related to writing fiction. But the sound ballpoints make on paper isn’t nearly as satisfying as a fountain pen nib’s scritching. I’m old enough to have begun my writing career on a typewriter, and to write in a way that is not associated with some kind of sound feels like a cheat. (For that matter, as a journalist, I’m of the very last generation to have worked in a newsroom with a typewriter and a teletype. All that wonderful noise and clatter helped me to focus and make deadlines. I still have a few sheets of used teletype paper in my files, on the backs of which I scribbled copy.)

Why write longhand at all? Simple. I get really fucking sick of looking at computer screens. Past a certain point, they hurt my eyes, and my hands get all achey from too much typing. Plus, it’s just a good idea to grab a pen, a tablet of paper, plop down in a coffeehouse or a library and just write, without any interfacing digital technology. I think it’s a healthy way to use different parts of your brain, so they don’t get all creaky and gummed up.

Today, though… I wrote with a Cross Medium Point. Why? Because in the novel I’m writing, A Choir of Exiles, I had to kill two sympathetic characters, and the ink had to really flow along with the mayhem. I gotta finish typing it all up before I make dinner.

Maybe I’ll play a sound file of a teletype machine going, so it’ll sound like a race with a real deadline?

 

 

I never met William Peter Blatty. Yet as someone who was not, as he was, educated by Jesuits, but was educated in History and Theology and Philosophy by people who were educated by Jesuits, I felt a certain intellectual connection to him and his work. And, as someone who has always loved a good joke, I admired the hell out of the guy who could pull a fast one over on Groucho Marx, as Blatty did when he posed as an Arab prince on Your Bet Your Life.

I hold Mr. Blatty’s thematic trilogy of The Exorcist, The Ninth Configuration, and Legion in such high esteem because of the deep humanity and humor present in those works. Admirers of these novels, and their film adaptations, need only hear the following words to break out in an uncontrollable grin: “Carp”; “Rabies”; “Lama”. (Or maybe “Fritos.”) If you’ve read his comedic book Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing, the question “Did you fuck my sister?!” will probably make you guffaw. His humor was always based on deeply human interaction. As was his horror.

It was with Mr. Blatty’s understanding of humanity, and our shared intellectual background (albeit, mine was second-hand Jesuit instruction), that I approached him to blurb my first novel, Dawn Song. I wrote him at the end of 1997. he sent me the following reply, postmarked Dec. 31…

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The generosity with which Mr. Blatty extended to me the courtesy of reading my book, and providing it with a thoughtful and very kind blurb that has graced every edition of it, demonstrated to me that the humanity present in his fiction was, in fact, the humanity present in the person. On this day of his passing, I know that I shall miss this person, knowing his humor and humanity are no longer in this world.

Inside the mind of author Michael Marano

Hey, Everyone! Just posting  for my students the topics I’ll be covering and the possible readings I’ll be assigning in my upcoming Grub Street class “The Smart Page-Turner Strikes Back!” The first class session will be on Wednesday, September 14, 2016 from 10:30 AM to 1:30 PM at Grub Street HQ in downtown Boston. The class will run at that time for ten weeks, with the final class taking place on Nov. 16, 2016. 

(If this seems like a lot of readings, keep in mind the lists below are tentative. I’m not going to assign them all!)

Grub Street is a non-profit creative writing center dedicated to nurturing writers and connecting readers with the wealth of writing talent in the Boston area. For more information on Grub Street, click here.

1. Creating Strong Imagery

How do you create effective imagery? How do you make imagery that’s…

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I’m really quite bummed by the death of Wes Craven. As a kid of the 1970s and 1980s, the artistry with which he articulated the darkness that was thrashing around in the American subconscious gave me a lot of catharsis. I had the pleasure of interviewing him by phone back in 2010. He was erudite, literate, and intellectually deft. One of these days, I should transcribe the whole conversation.  But for now, on the occasion of his death, I’ll share the bits that were published.

Wes Craven

SINS OF THE FATHERS

by

Michael Marano

(c) 2010, by Michael Marano

First appeared in the December, 2010 issue of SciFi Magazine.

I was sitting down the road from the marsh where Wes Craven filmed Swamp Thing back in ’82 when Craven took time out from filming Scream 4 to phone about his upcoming movie, My Soul To Take.

“I very jokingly can refer to it as Stand by Me with knives,” says the man who picked apart the American Id when he brought us Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street. His voice is cultured and smooth as a really good whiskey, the kind of voice that’d be perfect for a late-night Jazz DJ in a rainy city like Seattle or San Francisco. “It’s about a group young kids, 16-year-olds on their sixteenth birthday. And were all born on the same night in the local town hospital… on the night that a serial killer who had seven personalities died. Or at least, seems to have died….”

“The legend in the town is that this man [is still alive and] is going to come back to take his revenge on the town. But also it is suspected that he did die, and that his [murderous] soul went into one of these kids, and that the rest of the kids have his other souls. All of this man’s souls were rather benign except for the one that was a killer, and that [soul] was operating without this man’s knowledge. So, it’s a matter of, ‘Should we watch out for the friend we have? Or should we be watching out for the killer who is coming to take his revenge on the kids?'”

In this light, My Soul to Take almost sounds like a perfect storm of Wes Craven themes. If you look at a lot of Craven’s movies, they seem to deal with atonement, even if the people doing the atoning aren’t responsible for the initial trespass that’s being atoned for. The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Deadly Blessing, the Scream series–all involve some dark wrong committed that fairly blameless people (who often weren’t even born when the wrong was committed) have to pay for. And they pay for them real bad. I asked him about that.

“Certainly it’s one of the most profound aspects of life itself, when you realize you don’t just have to deal with your own stuff, and what you have caused, but what other people have caused in the past and sometimes in the quite recent past, and in the case of families, maybe even you parents. That’s just always interested me.”

“This film to me, frankly, feels quite personal. My father died when I was about four, so I do have some memories of him and some of them are kinds of scary. Not that he ever beat me, or anything. But I think he was a very gruff man with a bad temper. That kind of journey of trying to find out who your father really was and whether he loved you or didn’t like you–what were the aspects of his life?–it’s a very personal one. And also, you know, I was raised in the Fundamentalist faith, or let’s say even more specifically with the Bible. And ‘The Sins of the Fathers are visited upon their sons.’ That is a profound reality in our lives.”

In the context of family dynamics, what Craven is talking about smacks a lot of the same chords as Greek tragedy–how the immediacy of something that happened in your family can rise up and wreck your life. Check out Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes if you want some familial knee-slappers. Craven has thrown-down with a lot of these themes, too. These family dynamics bubble under Last House, Hills Have Eyes, Elm Street, Cursed, People Under the Stairs and all three Scream movies.

“Horror films, in my mind at least, are kind of human experience boiled down to the essence and sometimes to a very primal physical threat to the physicality of the body, or the mind or the soul, to the extent that we can understand what that is,” Craven said when I brought this up. “These are very, very primal sorts of things. And the family is a great paradigm of that. It’s not necessarily that everything is the world is about the family, but in a sense, it’s a boiling down of the Family of Man….. To take it down to the simplest paradigm, it quite often is the family, or the ‘tribe.’ Some horror films are about the group of friends who go out to do this or that, or some member of the tribe gets killed, or whatever. But it is about these very simple entities that have to do with the world we live in, outside of our own bodies, and how that affects us, and what those people either have done in the past or what the immediate generation just before them has done. A lot of horror films start out with: ‘On this night, one hundred years ago, these sailors died because someone took the lanterns off the rocks!‘ and then you end up with The Fog. I just think that for teenagers, especially, part of the coming into maturity is finding out who your parents really are, and what they did, and how that affects you. And even wrestling with the question of ‘Am I ever going to be distinctly different from my parents?’, or, ‘Am I going to be haunted by realizing Oh my God, I’ve become my father?’ is something that can happen to you in your ’30s or 40s.”

In this context, the antagonist in My Soul to Take seems to combine a couple of elements that have been staples of horror and slasher films of the past few decades: the earthly killer and the supernatural bogeyman. In the early days of the slasher genre as we know it, the killers had no direct connection to the supernatural. They had a level of power and blankness that seemed otherworldly, just look at early Argento movies. Then Jason became an undead super-being. Michael Meyers became a Druidic spirit being. Then we got Freddy, Chuckie from Child’s Play, the Trickster from Brainscan, Horace Pinker from Craven’s own Shocker. Where does the killer in My Soul to Take fall along this spectrum?

“I would spoil the story if I told you,” Craven said. “But the possibilities are that this is a man who has died and come back in one of the souls of the children, or this is a man who did not die and who is coming back to take his revenge, or this is a man who has died and who has come back in his own form, that has kind of been haunting the woods. All three of those are the given options over the course of trying to penetrate the mystery of what really is happening.”

Craven has directed in wildly different contexts. He’s done episodic TV for the 1980s incarnation of Twilight Zone. He’s done studio movies like Music from the Heart and Red Eye. One of the reasons he wrote and made The Hills Have Eyes was that it could be filmed on the cheap in the desert, where no permits would be needed. The climactic chainsaw fight in Last House was shot in a house that associate producer Steve Miner was renting.

“Even the budgets for Music from the Heart and Red Eye were modest budgets. I think over the course of making a lot of small films and learning how to make them seem bigger budgeted than they actually were, we’ve been able to mount films that have managed to get a lot of bang for the buck. My Soul to Take I would say is kind of in the middle. It wasn’t a miniscule budget. It wasn’t a big budget. But we were dealing with mostly unknown kids–there weren’t any gigantic fees on that. We shot in Connecticut, so we got a big tax break. The same guy was writing producing and directing, and his wife was also producing [Craven’s wife Iya Labunka], so we kept our costs down. I think the unusual thing about this film is that it falls into the films I’ve made that were written and directed by me where I’ve had final cut. Which were most of my classic films, possibly with the exception of Scream, written by Kevin Williamson and which also had terrific writing, and Carl Ellsworth’s work on Red Eye–[both] were scripts that were in terrific shape and had great ideas and I was able to just step in as director.”

“But My Soul to Take is very much of a personal film. I was given the auteur’s version of making a film, so I was allowed to do what I wanted, with great support. And although we didn’t have an unlimited number of days to shoot, we were able to put a film up that was designed to be modestly budgeted, but has a terrific look. I don’t think anyone is going to look at it and think that this is guerilla filmmaking. But on the other hand, anybody who knows about film would see that we designed it in a way that would be fairly economical to shoot.”

Hey… I’m posting this because I’ve been getting emails about the specifics of my upcoming “Writing the Smart Page-Turner” class at Grub Street in Boston this January, which will be taught at Grub Street HQ in downtown Boston Thursdays, from 10:30 AM to 1:30 PM starting on January 14, 2016. The gist of the class is–how do you make genre fiction… be it fantasy, science fiction, mystery, suspense, Western, erotica, whatever… literary? Yep, I toss around ideas about what makes certain works both popular and literary. But the class is specifically designed to be useful for the actual writing of novels and short stories. The instruction is practical, not theoretical.

“If only every teacher had the passion of Mike. He brings his rich background of book and film knowledge–and experience–and uses them to create classes that are a joy to attend. His comments on your writing are thoughtful, sincere, and designed to make you strengthen your writing muscles–no matter how developed or atrophied they may be.” John D., former student

The class will consist of detailed workshopping, brainstorming, in-class exercises, and the reading of some pretty great fiction, screenplays, stage plays, and comic books/graphic novels. Here’s a breakdown of the class and a few of the things we’ll be reading.

Week 1. What Makes Fiction Popular? OK, what makes something a “Smart Page-Turner”? To warm up, we’ll be picking apart a few of those elements, tricks and techniques that give genre works literary heft. There are three factors that are key to this, and we’ll not just talk about each factor, but look at how they work together. Readings will include Ray Bradbury and a few others.

Week 2. Creating Characters–“Archaeology Without Digging” In this class we’re going to be pinching techniques from top Hollywood screenwriters, acting coaches, journalists and… believe it or not… archaeologists. Creating good, memorable, believable characters can be a daunting challenge, and ruthlessly stealing from other disciplines can give you an awesome toolkit for doing this. Readings will include (non-scary) parts of Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, who, it should be noted, was a top crime reporter before he became a crime fiction writer. We’ll take a close look at how he uses his reporter’s eye to create amazing characters.

Week 3. World Building and Setting In genre fiction, “World Building” is often thought of in terms of how it applies to the creation of imaginary worlds, like Dune or Middle-earth. But the same techniques that are used to create imaginary settings can also be used to create believable, visceral settings for mysteries, espionage stories, cop stories, and vice versa. Building on last week’s lesson, we’ll take a look at how character defines setting, and setting defines character. Readings will include Philip K. Dick, part of a Philip Marlowe story by Raymond Chandler, and Tom Perrotta. We’ll also be looking at some awesome comic books, written by bestselling thriller author Brad Meltzer!

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Week 4. Exposition “As you know Bob–my twin brother and fellow operative with whom I grew up in Kansas–our briefing report from HQ summarizes that it is our objective to….” Ever roll your eyes at an expositional groaner like that? How do you get across the background information the reader needs to know without making a botch of it? We’ll go over some elegant techniques that get that information to the reader in ways that the reader at times won’t even notice. Readings will include Andre DubusJohn Cheever, and we’ll take a look at how James Cameron pulls this off in his better screenplays from the 1980s.

Week 5. Dialogue Bad dialogue can kill a great story. We’ll take a look at the work of people who can skillfully tell stories using almost only dialogue, like playwrights and the authors of radio dramas. We’ll see how playwriting techniques can be used in prose form, and also look closely at the work of playwrights who also write for the screen. Authors read will include Norman WexlerMidnight Cowboy author James Leo Herlihy, and Sarah Kane.

Joe Cover

Week 6. Point of View We’ll take a look at how POV actually defines plot, how it determines the narrative arc of a story, and can be used to create suspense. We’ll build on previous lessons to find ways to get deep into a character’s head, and to use that perspective to figure out not just what makes that character tick, but how he or she ticks in his or her world. Among other sources, we’ll be looking at a pretty great comic book written by Ed Brubaker that features Batman… in a context you’ve never seen him in before!

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Week 7. Plot What is plot? How is what is not told to the reader just as important in the creation of a plot as what is told? Is the narrative climax of a work of fiction the same as its emotional climax? In addition to raking over these questions, we’ll go over some great “hands on” techniques for creating new plots and getting your creative pistons firing. Readings will include Annie Proux.

Week 8. Theme Theme isn’t a one-way street. This session will focus on the ways that the reader contributes to an understanding of Theme right along with the author. We’ll talk about the themes in your fiction, how to develop them and make them dynamic. Readings will include Jack Ketchum and either Rosellen Brown or Tom Reamy.

Week 9. Meeting Weird Editorial Requirements Writers have to meet deadlines and deal with certain themes or topics when solicited, and some themes are just weird, or bewildering, or whacked. We’ll dig in and take a look at real themed anthology guidelines and find ways to cook stories suited for those markets. We’ll also find ways to create stories suited for several specialized markets, and take a look at how specific works have been developed for and sold to specialized anthologies. Readings will include William Faulkner and a few others.

Week 10. How to Work with Editors, Cover Letters, Submitting your Work So… what’s an editor do? What do they look for? The course will close with an examination of fiction that I have myself taken through the editorial process with other writers in my capacity as the Fiction Editor of the online magazine Chiaroscuro. We’ll also go over ways to submit professionally, and ways to strategize to whom you should send your work and how you should pitch it.

For more information on the class and to sign up, you can click here.

You can contact me directly at profmike AT mindspring DOT com

Thanks stopping by! Hope to see you in January!

Hey, Everyone!

People have been asking me about the kinds of things I cover in my Grub Street class, Screen and Stage to the Page: What Drama, Movies & TV Can Teach Prose Writers.  Well, for want of a better term, we’ll be using ideas from theater and drama critics and directors to “reverse engineer” scenes like this one below from the brilliant cult TV show FREAKS AND GEEKS, so that the same techniques can be used for your prose fiction, or even memoir. Think of it as a computer hack, only we’ll  be dissecting the teleplay and watching the episode, then we’ll take those awesome nuggets and figure out how to plug them into our novels and stories. This specific bit from FREAKS AND GEEKS is what we’ll be covering in the section on “How to Tap Real-Life Experiences.”  We’ve all been in situations kind of like what Lindsey faces below. But how do you blow that up into something dramatic and funny and packed full of meaning? How do you write about “slice of life” situations and create compelling storytelling, and not just diary entries with names changed?

Watch!

 

That’s a pretty amazing scene, right? Full of a whole spectrum of emotions. It feels over-the-top, but it also feels real. When we’ll be looking at this TV script, we’ll be looking at the ways in which writer Michael White managed to concentrate Real Life into a brilliant fictional scene, and brainstorming ways to do the same things for your prose storytelling.

 

For a break-down of all the stuff we’ll be covering, check out the syllabus here!

To enroll, click here.

 E-mail me at profmike AT mindspring DOT com if you have any specific questions or want any further information.

 

Hope the New Year is treating you all well!

 

 

 

 

Hey, Everybody!

Thought I’d give a specific hint of the kinds of things things I’ll be covering my upcoming Grub Street Class,  Screen and Stage to the Page: What Drama, Movies & TV Can Teach Prose Writers. It’s a 10-week class that will meet Monday Mornings from 10:30 to 1:30 at Grub Street HQ in downtown Boston starting January 12, 2015.

Check out the really incredible scene below (which we’ll be dissecting in detail about halfway through the course), from Robert Redford’s adaptation of Judith Guest’s really amazing novel Ordinary People. The script was by the great Oscar-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent.  The scene below is not in Guest’s novel, but it has become iconic in that it so beautifully and intensely concentrates the emotional tensions that backbone both the novel and the film. Check it out:

 

 

What we’re gonna look at in Screen and Stage to the Page: What Drama, Movies & TV Can Teach Prose Writers are the ways that you can, and at times maybe should, look upon revisions of your first drafts not as polishings, per se, but as adaptations, much in the same vein as screenwriters adapting novels to screenplays. We’ll “reverse engineer” the ways in which Sargent created the above scene (by taking a look at similar scenes he’s written in other adaptations of novels, like The Sterile Cuckoo by John Nichols, author of The Milagro Beanfield War) and inserted it into Guest’s existing narrative. And we’ll figure out ways you can use the same techniques of adaptation that screenwriters use to the revision of your own work.

If you have any questions, post them below and I’ll answer them ASAP.

 

To enroll, click here: http://tinyurl.com/3ctj92f  .

Hope to see you guys in class!