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"Watch my brains a minute, and see them whirl around."
12th-May-2011 12:12 pm - cross-reference bingo!
writing: glass cat--sarah
So at LepreCon this weekend, probably at the "Killing Your Characters" panel, matociquala was talking about the Demon Logging Truck that cruises Hollywood movies looking for convenient victims, and I said, "It's the truck from Duel!"

There's a problem with this, of course, in that at the end of Duel, the truck goes over a cliff, and we see the wreckage. Truck and truck driver, both dead.

But I realized while I was out walking this morning that the problem is resolvable, without leaving the world of B-movies. Because Christine establishes that a man with a sufficiently unhealthy relationship with his vehicle can make that vehicle demonically self-propelling and self-repairing. Roland LeBay does it by killing his wife and daughter in his Plymouth Fury, and you know, I can't believe that Dennis Weaver's character was the first victim of the Truck and her driver. So post-1971, the trucker may be dead, but the Truck can just keep on killing.

And she's found her apex-predator niche, too, as the Homicidal Plot Device.

The Truck always wins.
writing: glass cat
matociquala: Can I love him for admitting that he's only scared about an album if he thinks it's a good one?

truepenny: Yes. And that if he's not scared about it, he's doing something wrong. Totally. ::loff::

matociquala: Yes.


See, this is the problem. I went and watched too many interviews, and he got all humanized, and now I feel odd staring at his crotch.

Lust is so much easier when you can objectify someone.

truepenny: ... and the collectivity of the practitioners of the Male Gaze, starting all the way back with the first Homo sapiens to draw a dirty picture on the wall of his cave, just got terrible cold shivers AND THEY DON'T KNOW WHY.

But I do.

matociquala: Hee. *g* It's so TRUE!

..not that that's going to stop me from staring at his crotch.

truepenny: Bear, David Bowie WANTS you to stare at his crotch.

matociquala: Well, it's how he makes his money, after all. And keeps your attention long enough to subvert you.

But I still feel dirty.

truepenny: You know, you've probably just made him very happy.

matociquala: Hee. Because I can intellectualize my crotch-staring?

(No, really. I respect you as a person, as an artist, as a man. As a father. ... ... ...do that thing with your tongue again?)

truepenny: Because he's made you feel dirty.

matociquala: I made me feel dirty.

Although I now understand men who say "No, really, I do respect..." *g*

truepenny: He has caused you to make yourself feel dirty. Not merely the genderfuck, but the identityfuck, has worked.

matociquala: Yes. The genderfuck cannot make me feel dirty. But he has exposed my own hypocrisy to me.

truepenny: That's a really complicated piece of subversion he's got going on there.

And you know, it's still got a beautiful, sexy, entertaining surface.

Which is the difference between "popular entertainment" and "art." If his genderfuck was not accompanied by catchy and popular songs, and wasn't saturated in popular culture--if, you know, it was all stark and demanding, with all the theory showing, no one would watch him, but everyone would write about him.

Our society has got fucked in the head somehow.

matociquala: Yes. This, exactly. It's the same thing he's doing with those two songs--"Jump They Say" and "Everyone Says Hi." You think it's a pop song. Bouncy shiny happy people dance tune. Cute little kid writing a letter tune.

But it's nooooooooot.

This is the same Shakespeare-trick I really, really want to learn.

truepenny: Tension--conflict even--between surface and depth.

It's hard.

And half the audience will miss it anyway.

matociquala: More than half. If you do it right, maybe even most.

But it doesn't matter.

Heck, that's part of the magic trick.

truepenny: The surface has to be worth people's while. See above re: the difference between "popular entertainment" and "art."
bear by san

There's a thing in the August Scientific American about how and why chess grandmasters become chess grandmasters.

What the article calls "effortful study"--constantly setting yourself goals that are just beyond your reach--seems to be key in chess, as in several other disciplines mentioned, including music.

I think we can add writing to the list.

Yes. And science, and math, and athletics, and--- well, anything.

Do the hard thing. A creature's reach should exceed its grasp.

If it's not bigger than your head, it's not worth eating.

27th-Jun-2006 05:40 pm - alchemy
writing: glass cat--sarah
truepenny: Writers' brains are an infinite series of alchemical laboratories, all busily engaged in the process of turning lead into gold.

"Lead" in this case means input of all kinds: sensory, intellectual, emotional. "Gold" is a story that works. But one of the most interesting kinds of transmutation is the one where the "lead" is itself a story (i.e., somebody else's gold), and the gold is a new story.

A personal example: when I was a teenager and reading like a goat eats, i.e., omnivorously and without discrimination, I read Weis and Hickman's The Rose of the Prophet. Quasi-Arabian Nights, and I seem to remember gods being kept in a fishbowl? But anyway, one of the major characters is what The Tough Guide to Fantasyland would characterize as the Gay Mage. Red-haired, pale-skinned, androgynous--he has a "fluting" voice--beautiful. And of course, gay. Although his gayness is subtle to the point of subtextuality, and certainly never consummated.

Dump it into the lab, spin the gears, make the mystic incantations, and voila! You get ... Felix. Red-haired, pale-skinned, androgynous (no facial hair, and much too pretty for his own good), with a high, breathy tenor. And queer. Queer as a three-dollar bill, and over-sexed to boot.

I don't think I would ever have gotten to Felix if it hadn't been for Mathew--and for another Weis and Hickman character, Raistlin Majere. Is the line of descent recognizable to anyone but me? Probably not (although now that I've obligingly spelled it out for y'all ...). But this is how the alchemical process works, and why there's a certain point at which value judgments about "literary merit" cease to be useful. Because I learned from The Rose of the Prophet and the Dragonlance books, and what I learned transmutes to gold just the same way all the rest of it does.

matociquala: Sarah's experience in this--the input turning into the output--fits with my history as a writer, as well, What's really amusing about it is how much of it one can do without realizing a bit of it. There was my somewhat shocking 2003 revelation that when I was writing the bantering relationship between Shakespeare and Marlowe in The Stratford Man, I was to some extent duplicating the dynamic of the main characters of The Man From UNCLE. (A revelation that led to me getting truepenny hooked on the show, for what it's worth.)

I hadn't known then that that was what I was doing, but the line of descent of the ironical back and forth is, in retrospect, pretty obvious to me. I mean, Will and Kit don't sound like Napoleon and Illya. But the rhythm carries through.

More recently, I stumbled over the source of a couple of my male characters. While very different men in a lot of ways, both Gabe Castaign and Matthew Szczegielniak are good-natured, intelligent, feminist, nurturing, principled, and capable of an absolute uncompromising sort of ruthlessness when something they care about is threatened. Also, they're both blond. And deceptively tough.

Now, Gabe is in his fifties, a single father, a widower, a bit of a tramp, ex-military, now a programmer, big and broad and a bit out of shape these days. He's got a ferocious temper under the right circumstances, but he's generally level-headed and while he tries hard, he's not really verbally quick. He's got a big family, which he loves, and he keeps adding to it. Also, his jokes are pretty lame.

Matthew, on the other hand, is 33, not too tall, spends most of his free time on athletic pursuits, has never kissed a girl (but has read up on it extensively), expends a great deal of energy on camouflage (emotional, physical, magical), is a Mage and a scholar, is an orphan who also lost his older brother, and relies on a sugar momma for support. He's fanatically devoted to a cause, and he'd die to protect a stranger. He's witty, bitchy, and gets rather upset with people who don't automatically understand that his perspective is Correct and that his side is the Right Side.

...they are both, I realized, while watching some '80's television the other month, the linear descendants of William Katt's character on The Greatest American Hero, Ralph Hinkley.

Yeah, I know.

This is where I came in.


The point is, I guess, that these things do get consumed and digested and the bones and flesh of story get built out of them. The trick, in my mind, is to own them. To put them in the pot and let them simmer long enough that they are converted, as Sarah said, into gold. Or into something new, in any case.

The correct answer, for me, to "where do you get your ideas?" is "All over the place. They just have to cook."

truepenny: 1. This process happens whether you're watching it or not. It can be conscious--we wrote A Companion to Wolves, after all, because we were consciously transmuting something old (Anne McCaffrey's Pern books and certain of their unexamined assumptions) into something new. But it doesn't have to be conscious. Mostly, in my experience, it's more in the "belated epiphany" class. Oh, THAT's what I was doing!

2. Creativity, like a goat, doesn't CARE if it's eating Beluga caviar or deep-fried Twinkies. On some very basic level, it can't even tell the difference.

matociquala: I'd actually pick this apart a bit further and say that one's creativity needs both. The deep-fried Twinkies and the caviar. Because art is about life, and life is about both. The illusion of depth is achieved by layering.

Pretension, on the other hand, is dishonesty, and dishonesty leads to lousy art.

truepenny: The important thing is to admit to both. To own the "trash" as much as the "literature," and to testify, even if only to yourself, that both matter. As I said in a post on my own blog, it's the cross-connects we need, and you don't get those if you aren't an omnivore with an iron digestion.
22nd-May-2006 11:54 am - And now, we skew the sample.
bear by san
truepenny and I are amused to note that the livejournal writerblog book-buying demographic is, in fact, a large enough percentage of the Amazon userbase that the "better together" function has autolumped truepenny and naominovik together, and myself and papersky.

We can only presume that this is because our loyal livejournal pals are actually buying enough books to essentially googlebomb the system.

Go Team!
18th-May-2006 08:52 pm - Secrets and Mysteries
writing: glass cat--sarah
CAIN: Are you looking for a mystery or a secret?
ABBY: I ... I don't know. Is there a difference?
CAIN: Of COURSE there's a difference! Mysteries are wonders that you can ponder and share. Secrets are a burden to carry ALONE!

--Swamp Thing 33, "Abandoned Houses"
(collected in Swamp Thing: Love and Death)

A secret is something the reader is not supposed to know until the author reveals it.

A mystery is something the reader may (or may not) figure out on their own. Many mysteries are also revealed, but not all of them.

Or as Cain puts it, a mystery is a wonder. A secret is a burden.

A mystery, therefore, is part of the narrative structure of the story. (It's no accident that "sensawunda" is a prized characteristic in certain subgenres of sf. Wonder is one of the most precious things art can give us.) I have not read Agyar, but I understand that its mystery is never given a reveal. The identities of most of the main characters in A Night in the Lonesome October are mysteries which the reader is supposed to solve. Silverlock is compounded of nothing but mysteries.

A secret is more problematic. It's a burden on the story, like the Albatross around the neck of the Ancient Mariner. Now, the Ancient Mariner had to carry that Albatross for a reason, and it may be the case that the story needs its albatross, too. Bone Dance is the best example I can think of, where the secret is a secret the narrator is keeping from readers and other characters alike, and the reveal is about the story's themes as much as it is about the secret itself.

But you have to be very careful when you're tying an albatross around your story's neck. Is the payoff going to be worth the weight? Does the secret have a purpose? That is, can you explain why this secret is something that must be hidden until the reveal? Or is it just a secret that you're keeping in order to have something in reserve? An ace up your sleeve? That's a metaphor for cheating, and that's exactly why secret-keeping is such an ambivalent pastime in fiction.

Mystery writers in the Golden Age of detective fiction (Queen, Carr, Sayers, et al.) abided very stringently by the rules of fair play. All the clues had to be in the narrative for the reader to find. Even in The Five Red Herrings, when Sayers deliberately and explicitly withholds the identity of one object, it is possible for the reader to deduce from context what that object is. Early Ellery Queen mysteries even have an intermission, an entr'acte, called The Challenge to the Reader, in which the narrative stops dead for the narrator/author to assure the reader that they have all the information necessary to solve the mystery. Golden Age detective fiction makes mysteries and the solving of them thematic. And they don't cheat. The exception, of course, is Agatha Christie, who sometimes does cheat for the sake of a parlor trick.

And Agatha Christie is a good example of why cheating doesn't pay in the long run. Many readers are offended (by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in particular, although that's hardly the only possible example), and even if you aren't offended, once you've read one of her trick-writing stunts, you will never read it again. There's no point. And that's why keeping secrets for the sake of it is meretricious: the effect depends entirely on the surprise.

So that's one question to ask. If you take away the surprise, the secret, what's left for the reader to care about? What would make them read this story a second time? (I know not all readers are re-readers. I am, and it's something I value very deeply in the books I love.) And I'm not saying that there can't be reasons. Diana Wynne Jones's books often have secrets (A Tale of Time City is, I think, my favorite example), and I will happily reread them over and over again.

The other question is, is the albatross of the secret breaking the story's back? What shift and shenanigans are you putting yourself and your characters to in order to keep the secret safe? (Note that there is a difference between the characters bending over backwards to keep secrets and the narrative bending over backwards to keep secrets.) And is the secret worth the bother? Again, the answer may be yes.

The part that's important is asking the question, and asking it honestly. And remembering the difference between a secret and a mystery.
writing: glass cat
for blog against heteronormativity day

That was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.
      --Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta

That was another wench, and besides, the country's dead.

truepenny: The hardest thing about studying history, whether for business or pleasure or both, is wrenching yourself out of the mindset you were raised with, giving back the givens your life is built upon. Whether we agree with Freud or not, we are all his children. Americans, by and large, are also Cotton Mather's children. (Sigmund Freud and Cotton Mather--now there's a match made in hell.) We are simultaneously obsessed with sex and ashamed of it, convinced it is central to our identities and determined not to dwell on it.

The men and women of Elizabeth and James's times would be puzzled, and possibly amused, by our hand-wringing and navel-gazing. Sex was a defining characteristic, in a highly patriarchal society, but sexuality was not.

Heterosexual and homosexual, gay and straight--these are not distinctions that would have made sense to William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. (Who get to be our guinea pigs because they're easiest to talk about.) Claiming that either one of them was "gay" is as reductive and misleading as claiming that either one of them was "straight."

matociquala: They're words without meaning in this context, aren't they?

In period, one has a vocabulary to talk about same-sex relationships, and opposite-sex relationships (isn't "opposite sex" a misleading term?) but one doesn't have a vocabulary with which to define one's self by one's love affairs. I mean, one might be a bugger or a catamite or a Ganymede or whatever, but it's not the identity that being gay or straight or bisexual is. It doesn't come with the cultural baggage.

truepenny: A catamite, or a Ganymede, is also a social position. You're not being identified as a man who loves other men; you're being identified, quite specifically, as a man who is kept by another man.

matociquala: Yes. And who will eventually grow up and either have catamites of his own, or a wife, or both. Hey nonny nonny.

Which is why the "Christopher Marlowe, Gay Atheist Spy" thing makes me wince a little. Because atheist doesn't mean what we think it means, in this context, and "gay" is just a null concept. You can't be homonormative when there's no norm to, er, home in on.

Okay, Marlowe's very interested in talking about same-sex desire. Both humorously (Leander, so not interested in boys; Boys? very interested in Leander!) and in terms of its potential for tragedy (Edward II). He's interested in sex-as-transgression in general, frankly. From Dido, to Leander and Hero, to Corinna, to adultery, to sex with succubi... if it's a kink, he'll talk about it. (The bit in Hero and Leander where the two blundering virgins can't quite manage to figure out what they're supposed to do to actually have sex is really hysterical. One is left with with the impression that they do manage just about everything short of PIV, however, through the happy offices of trial and error. It's almost postmodern, really--the awkward sex with the blushing amorous lovers fumbling in the dark is not the stuff of romance.)

Shakespeare talks somewhat about same-sex desire, but it's almost always in the context of genderfuck. Women dressed as men, and men who appear to be women. The fact of the matter is that very few of his characters who think they're in love with a member of their own sex seem disturbed by this--and Rosalind isn't too put off with her prospective lover's willingness to woo her as a boy.

truepenny: She's not put off at all. It is, after all, her idea.

matociquala: Meanwhile, he also shows some very close, adoring female friendships. Whether there's implied sexuality in Hermia and Helena's friendship is kind of an open question, I think.

You know, it just occured to me. Love has absolutely nothing to do with the gender of the beloved, in Shakespeare. He just doesn't care. Marriage and social contracts and filial duty and inheritance and hierarchy, things of that nature, they are affected by the sex of the participants. But love and desire... the sex of the beloved is as meaningless to him as anything could possibly be. He's more concerned with freaking hair color.

truepenny: And if it weren't for the fact that his comedies end in marriage, you kind of wonder if he'd bother to resolve the genderfuck. Because that's the problem: Orsino can't marry Cesario, because he's a boy. But Olivia can't marry Cesario either, because he's really a girl. That's why you need Sebastian to be a place holder for Cesario, so that Viola can resurrect her female self. Because otherwise you can't get the marriages to work right. And the way that poor Antonio is left standing alone flags that. It's not that his love is less real (it could hardly be less real than Olivia's "love" for Sebastian, after all); it's that he doesn't fit in the legal/social context of marriage. As we said in an earlier post, Shakespeare's conservative. He's willing to point out the flaws in the system, to subvert the system--but he's not willing to tear the whole thing down. He's not willing to have Sebastian say, "Actually, thanks so much, but girls don't do it for me," and walk off hand in hand with Antonio.

matociquala: In my happy ending, they have a double commitment ceremony with Olivia and Viola.

Yeah, poor Antonio is really the Cheese in that play. And Orsino needs to be hit by a plot truck.

It may not even be Shakespeare himself that demands the conservative resolution, so much as his audience. I've also always felt that the speech at the end of Shrew feels a bit tacked on, a sort of "If these shadows have offended" chickening out, a pat on the head for Master Tilney. No, really, we are not subversive! See, we put the playthings back at the end.

So yes, I agree--I think if he hadn't had to deliver a tidy ending, Twelfth Night might have ended rather differently.

But then again, I'm not convinced that Marlowe was going to drown Leander, left to his own devices. Or, if he did, I think it was going to be for refusing to sleep with Neptune, rather than as divine punishment for seducing a nun.

truepenny: Divine punishment for seducing a nun is nonsense in Marlowe's world. That's pure Chapman, and stupid with it.

And the reimposition of social norms on Marlovian anarchy. It's still anachronisitic to call it heteronormativity, but if there is an Elizabethan heteronormative gesture, Chapman's ending to Hero and Leander qualifies.

matociquala: Yes. A social-normative gesture, anyway.

truepenny: I think it's also important to point out that genderfuck was not merely the property of the stage. Elizabeth used it all the time, playing off her femininity against her kingship.

matociquala: The bit in The Revengers Tragedy that refers to a woman who nobody gets into being just like a man. Elizabeth's virginity equals her masculinity. She has the heart and belly of a King; nobody can fuck her.

truepenny And that's why her virginity is so important a part of her public persona. (Since whether she died a physical virgin is, well, doubtful at best.)

And genderfuck was enough of a concern that there are pamphlets surviving that complain about the blurring of the lines between women and men: Hic Mulier (This [masculine] Woman) and Haec Vir (This [feminine] Man) are the two most famous.1 Philip Sidney's Arcadia features a man who cross-dresses as a woman so completely that the narrative refers to him as "her" when he/she is in feminine clothes (which is for most of the romance--Old or New, take your pick). Sonnet 202 is very much about the instability of gender identity; as with Antonio, the speaker's love for the fair young man is not affected, but there is no social register in which that love fits.

Sexual/romantic relationships between a man and a woman are still more acceptable than sexual/romantic relationships between two men or two women.

matociquala: Yes. Because while Shakespeare doesn't care who his characters fall in love with, society does. And society demands they fill their accepted hierarchical roles, rather than haring off on their own. So, if at the end of a comedy, things are set "right" (the hierarchy is reaffirmed) then that all has to get swept under the rug a bit.

Marlowe, interestingly, does care who his characters fall in love with. He talks about the implications of same-sex desire and how it differs from opposite-sex desire, and how adultery differs from other kinds of transgressive sex. He's less convinced that cheating on your husband is a capital-s SIN than Shakespeare in, for one thing. (I wonder if that's the opinion of an unmarried man with a violent father and a full crop of sisters, as opposed to someone who married young and was one of several brothers and the father of daughters, actually.)

And, yanno, seducing pretty nuns. Who wouldn't??

truepenny: Well, and it pleases his irreligious streak.

Marlowe's ethics are much more situational than Shakespeare's, I think. Right and wrong depend on who you are and where you are and who you're in love with. Whereas in Shakespeare, right and wrong are more absolute. You can get caught between them as Hamlet does--and a lot of times his tragedies are about proving two wrongs don't make a right--but there is right and there is wrong and you can tell the difference.

But love isn't wrong. Even when it's impossible.

1If you're interested, both these pamphlets and several others about the place of women in Elizabethan society (which is far more complicated than it's often portrayed as) are reprinted in Half Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy about Women in England, 1540-1640, edited by Katherine Usher Henderson and Barbara F. McManus (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985).

2Sonnet 20
A womans face with natures owne hand painted,
Haste thou the Master Mistris of my passion,
A womans gentle hart but not acquainted
With shifting change as is false womens fashion,
An eye more bright than theirs, lesse false in rowling:
Gilding the object where-vpon it gazeth,
A man in hew all Hews in his controwling,
Which steales mens eyes and womens soules amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till nature as she wrought thee fell a dotinge,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
    But since she prickt thee out for womens pleasure,
    Mine be thy loue and thy loues vse their treasure.
(Shakespeare's Sonnets. Ed. Stephen Booth. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977)
20th-Apr-2006 10:58 am - Myth-making: Chicago 1924
writing: glass cat--sarah
I've been listening to the soundtrack for Chicago a lot recently.

Because it's how my brain works, I looked up the real-life trials the musical is based on, and I discovered something interesting. The trials of Beulah Annan (Roxie Hart) and Belva Gaertner (Velma Kelly) overlapped with the Leopold and Loeb case. A woman named Maurine Dallas Watkins did reporting for all three trials; she went on to write a play called Chicago (on which the musical is based). Belva Gaertner attended the premiere. It's Maurine Dallas Watkins who named the characters: Roxie, Velma, Amos Hart, Billy Flynn. It's Maurine Dallas Watkins who made the real-life story into a myth.

(With Annan and Gaertner, there were six women on Death Row--"the six merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail," as the musical puts it--but Maurine Dallas Watkins wasn't interested in the other four. Two, Minnie Nichols and Rose Epps, were African-American, two, Sabella Nitti and Lela Foster, were middle-aged--neither beautiful (Beulah) or stylish (Belva); they'd boringly offed their husbands, instead of going after their adulterous lovers. They weren't grist for Watkins' particular mill.)

On the opposite side of the coin, consider Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Loeb and Leopold took a myth--the Nietzchean myth of the superman--and tried to turn it into real life. And they failed. Abysmally. The interesting thing about them is that they really were as smart as they thought they were--Leopold in particular was terrifyingly bright--but their "perfect crime" was a dog's breakfast from beginning to end. Beulah Annan, who was clearly about as bright as a bag of hammers, did a better job than they did. And although plenty of plays, novels, and movies have been made based on Leopold and Loeb, none of them has achieved the durability of Chicago. In the 1950s, Watkins was refusing to allow new performances of Chicago, but the myth of Roxie and Velma didn't die. It just waited. You must never run from anything immortal, the Unicorn tells Schmendrick. It attracts their attention.

Now, Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner got left behind by the myth-making machine, but that's because Watkins' myth isn't really about them. That's the thing about myths. They aren't about real human beings. Which is also where Loeb, with Leopold tagging faithfully along behind, went off the rails. Myths and real life are codependent, but don't try to substitute one for the other.

Beulah Annan died of tuberculosis in 1928. Roxie Hart lives on.

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