Welcome to Storytellers Unplugged. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!
(OR: HOW YOU CAN BE A GOODER WRITER, TODAY!)
By John Skipp
Dear class –
I’d like to dedicate this month’s creative escapade to a young writer/entrepreneur by the name of J. Timothy King, who – though he probably didn’t plan it this way – has brought much joy to my life over the course of the past week.
Here’s the deal:
Below, you’ll find a link to Mr. King’s ebook, entitled 1001 CHARACTER QUIRKS FOR WRITING FICTION: A TOOL FOR CREATING MEMORABLE FICTIONAL CHARACTERS.
I strongly urge you to peruse this advertisement, because what follows will be a whole lot funnier if you do.
And your assignment – should you choose to accept it – will be based directly on your response to the quality of the ideas and expression contained therein.
Okay. So I don’t know about you guys, but I am totally fucking sold. In fact, I don’t think that “1,001 Character Quirks” are nearly enough. AND NEITHER DO YOU!
That’s why I’m offering “10,000,000,001 MORE Adorable Character Quirks!”
Check out these 20 FREE SAMPLES!
1) Picks nose frequently.
2) Forgets to chew sometimes.
3) Is 62 years old.
4) Has never been to Spain.
5) Is a Wichita Lineman.
6) Makes muskrat love, with actual muskrats.
7) Would vote for George W. Bush again, if given half a chance.
8 ) Can’t turn invisible, but can make you THINK they’re invisible.
9) Has a harelip.
10) Has a black light in their bedroom, even though it makes their teeth look green.
11) Is actually kinder, by and large, than the historical Jesus.
12) Has every album by the band Toto, on vinyl and CD.
13) Eats scrambled eggs and orange slices for breakfast with the family, four days a week, and wonders why they all have such sulfurous farts.
14) Enjoys the texture of felt.
15) Is frightened by lint.
16) Is so ticklish he or she turns violent, and kills.
17) Has a dozen nipples.
18 ) Speaks a dozen languages, including Panda.
19) Has been cut in half.
20) Is unsightly. (Or attractive!)
See how easy that is? YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE TO THINK! (#21)
And yet, you find that your characters are still not “quirky” enough? Of course they aren’t! The fact is, all best-selling books are populated exclusively by characters so jam-packed with quirk, they’re literally CHOKING on their own abnormality!
Not convinced? Try these 20 NEW SAMPLES, fresh from our ovens:
1) Is obsessed with phlegm.
2) Collects doggie dashboard ornaments (bobble heads a plus!).
3) Member of Ruth Buzzi Fan Club.
4) Wears only hot pink and lime green.
5) Cannot discuss sausages without yelling “Snausages!”
6) Pretends he’s a mastadon, when cornered.
7) Is covered with suppurating boils.
8 ) Won’t stop hitting on your mom.
9) Still does his Chris Farley impression.
10) Dreads sundown.
11) Maintains backyard mud-wrestling pit.
12) Lines underwear with eggplant, just in case they need a snack.
13) Wears glasses with actual Coke bottle lenses.
14) Says “Top of the mornin’ to ya!”
15) Wishes she could be shrunk, injected into a scientist’s bloodstream, and wind up sexually accosted by microorganisms.
16) Is suspicious of cheese.
17) Follows you home.
18 ) Specializes in frumpy hats.
19) Lives in Wyoming.
20) Calls cockroaches “land lobsters”, and treats them accordingly.
At this point, frankly, I’m a bit concerned that the revolutionary impact of J. Timothy King’s theories is still being dismissed here, in a fairly callous and cavalier fashion.
So in the interest of great literature through the ages, and the hope that it flowers, eternal…
…HERE’S ONE LAST JUMBO BATCH OF HUGELY IMPORTANT CHARACTER QUIRKS! Ignore them at your own peril!
1) Shaves his balls.
2) Thinks the words “Ass-Burger’s Syndrome” are funny.
3) Always takes a Ouija board to parties.
4) Knows all the words to John Coltrane “songs”; sings them like Bullwinkle Moose.
5) Is overly fond of gnats.
6) Will drink a liver-and-onion daquiri if you dare him.
7) Dances like Crispin Glover.
8 ) Still keeps the first dead bird she ever found in a Baggie in her sock drawer; thinks it gives her “mystical powers”.
9) Has that whole “naked-women-covered-with-baked-beans” fetish.
10) Believes that chickens are the Devil.
11) After three minutes, decides “You’re my best friend EVER!”
12) Thinks rich people smell like actual money.
13) Incubates in raw sewage.
14) Has a little tuft on their forehead.
15) Thinks Justin Timberlake is “rough trade”.
16) Still loves the great taste of Elmer’s Glue.
17) Dresses their vestigal twin in Barbie clothes.
18 ) Fondles walnuts.
19) Kisses like a drowning sailor.
20) Won’t stop screaming, no matter how many times you slap them.
21) Thinks Metamusel is an energy drink.
22) Can’t be bothered with flushing.
23) Runs 10 miles every day, even though it takes them all day to do so.
24) Used to date Tiny Tim.
25) Has cauliflower ears, cherry tomato eyes, carrot fingers, sliced cucumber nipples, and a belly full of ranch dressing.
26) Believes that FRATERNITY VACATION with Stephen Geoffreys is still the greatest teen sex comedy ever made.
27) Considers their home to be one enormous ant farm.
28) Doesn’t believe in vowel sounds.
29) Thought the doctor said he wanted a “pancreatic casserole”, and can’t find the recipe anywhere.
30) Has only one zit, but it lasts forever.
31) Stutters while asleep.
32) At 27, is the oldest third-grader in town.
33) Wishes babies were taller.
34) Can crush a full can of Fosters Lager between their ass cheeks.
35) Believes that life is but a dream; is desperately trying to wake up.
36) Wishes R.L. Stine would write more books for grownups.
37) Wishes Ann Coulter would write more books for grownups. (ZING!)
38) Likes to “lick the batter” out of cement mixers.
39) Lives in terror that the guy from Kids In The Hall will actually crush his head.
40) Thinks that faraway objects are actually as small as they appear.
As you can see, I still have quite a ways to go before making it to the coveted 10,000,000,001 mark.
And that’s where YOU come in! Cuz if we don’t make it, THERE MAY NEVER BE ANOTHER BESTSELLER!!!
So — in the immortal words of J. Timothy “Martin Luther” King — it’s time to pick up the hammer of writerly ambition, and SMASH IT REPEATEDLY against the “Magic Idea Box” that is your skull.
That’s your foolish assignment for the month.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with keeping a “character journal”, or a running litany of human idiosyncrasy. Paying attention to the nuances of oneself and others is half the fun of the writer’s life. And vividly executing it in prose is…well, pretty much THE OTHER HALF.
Certainly, a movie like AMELIE gets most of its charm from playful, accurate observation. And I’ve never loved a movie more than I love AMELIE.
I guess the thing I find most hilarious and heartbreaking about young Mister King’s advertisement is the whole cart-in-front-of-the-horse thing.
I mean, we ALL want attention and recognition. There ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.
But when you get a guy who is seemingly-unpublished, offering to sell you the SECRETS OF BESTSELLERDOM, and he leads off his list with “Trips over things” and “Is rude to others”, I gotta think this young man has maybe gotten slightly ahead of himself.
So the great gift of laughter that J. Timothy King has brought me is twofold, at least.
First, it makes me laugh at my own writerly ego, which DESPERATELY needs to be laughed at, on a regular basis. And fortunately, there will never be a shortage of people laughing at my writerly ego. (You could be doing it RIGHT NOW!)
Second, it underscores the need for new writers to take this sort of “Instructional Paraphernalia” with as many grains of salt as your personal saltshaker has handy.
Which is not to say that I might not still purchase 1001 CHARACTER QUIRKS, as I remain unconvinced that it’s not some kind of crazy Church of the Subgenius prank: deliberately hilarious and painful, instead of just inadvertently so.
And since poor ol’ Tim has only managed one blurb for his ebook – coming, with horrifying predictability, from HIMSELF – please feel free to wrangle up some of your own. I know I did!
“Now that I have become my own ‘Magic Idea Box’, I just stay home and watch myself. I never know what I’ll do next!”
– John Skipp, Writer!
“I no longer think of characters as ‘people’…just assemblages of tics and shenanigans. And my writing has never been better!”
– Charles Dickens, Writer!
“Help! I’m trapped in a ‘Magical Idea Box’! I haven’t eaten in three days, and I’m running out of urine!”
– E.L. Doctorow, Writer!
“It appears that character quirks are the mystery ingredients that underlie all matter…oh, wait. That’s quarks. Never mind.”
– Stephen Hawkings, writer!
So, please, MORE QUIRKS! And more testimonials! Deep, heartfelt thoughts are also welcome.
And GOD BLESS YOU, J. TIMOTHY KING!!! For the laughs. For the love. And for reminding us all that a “Magic Idea Box” could be ours for the taking, if only we use – ummm – OUR IMAGINATIONS, OR SOMETHING!
Yer incorrigible instructor,
(ON THE VIRTUES OF BEING YOURSELF, IN PRINT, NO MATTER WHAT)
By John Skipp
Dear class –
Today, I’m gonna open with a recent blog by one of my favorite writer friends, comedian Rachel Arieff. In it, she sets up the central premise of this month’s zesty exercise:
Losers and Jerkoffs
I’m currently reading Shit Magnet by Jim Goad. I really enjoy reading that motherfucker, as pathetic and self-pitying as he is. I’m about half-way through it and what I’ve read so far just seems like an exercise in dodging responsibility.
But damn, I like the way he writes. Thanks to him, I totally sullied my last summer at the beach, reading Jim Goad’s Gigantic Book of Sex. He is so clear, concise, and entertaining. When someone’s a good writer, you read their stuff and you feel like you know them.
In the case of Jim Goad, I feel like I know someone that I wish I’d never met. Like when you meet someone at a party that makes your soul curl up like a potato bug and go, “Eeew!” And then you spend the rest of the night trying to avoid that person — mainly by leaving early.
Or if you’re young, dumb and have no self-esteem, by leaving with that person.
Whether or not you personally like an author is irrelevant. Do you see how hard it is to get total strangers to feel as if they know you, just by what you put down on paper? It is incredibly difficult. It involves stripping away layers of bullshit and masks to reveal the essence of who you are. Even if what you end up stripping down to happens to be your biggest, simplest mask, it’s still a damn good effort. After all, we’re all human, and humans are flawed and frightened and full of shit.
Putting on masks is easy. Just take a look around MySpace. Excluding the creative people who actually do something with their pages, the rest of the site is thousands of pages of appropriated names, derivative identities, nonexistent blogs — or, when they do exist, blog entries that consist of music lyrics, movie dialogue or other work created by someone else. Not an original thought anywhere.
Maybe they haven’t discovered what they have inside. Maybe they’re afraid to find out. Maybe they’re intellectually and spiritually uncurious and just don’t want to do the work. Those people are the majority.
It takes courage to show who you really are, what you really think, how boring, stupid, or ugly you can be. It takes cojones to put your flaws out there for all the world to see, judge, and ridicule. But a real artist doesn’t have any other choice.
That’s what’s fascinating about writing. You can be a total loser jerkoff of a human being, but if you write convincingly and entertainingly about what a loser jerkoff you are, you end up a winner. And you end up inspiring other writers to work harder on their writing.
Jesus, look at what I just wrote. How embarrassing. I hate those terms, “loser”, “winner.” So crude, so trite, so ’80s.
See? I need to work on my writing more, so I can be as good as that loser jerkoff Jim Goad.
Okay! So just in case it isn’t clear already, your assignment for today is this:
WRITE A SHORT ESSAY ABOUT HONEST, FLAWED HUMANITY THAT LETS US FEEL AS THOUGH WE REALLY GOT A GLIMPSE OF YOUR SOUL.
You don’t have to make yourself the topic of the essay (although you’re more than welcome to). I’m not asking you to expose your most private, deep, personal pain or shame.
Just pick a subject that you feel passionately about. Express yourself in an unflinchingly candid manner. And don’t be afraid to show us your ass, as well as our own.
The point is to write, as Rachel said, so concisely, convincingly and entertainingly that whether we like you or not is completely irrelevant. The point is that WE GET YOU.
Why is this important, for a writer of fiction?
Well, for one thing, because your characters need your emotional honesty if they are to thrive and become full-blooded.
And I don’t know about you, but insofar as I’m concerned, honest writing kicks the shit out of dishonest writing, every time.
Courage and candor and raw personality are qualities that glow from within. So is the ability to laugh not only at others, but at ourselves.
Which is to say that – no matter WHAT you’re writing – having these skill sets in your arsenal is only going to help.
So let’s see a little bit of that action now, shall we?
And THANK YOU, RACHEL ARIEFF! Let’s give this gal a great big hand! ALL THE WAY FROM BARCELONA, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! Make sure you Google her, and check out all the excellent fun!
(CLAPPITY CLAPPITY CLAP!!!)
Now just before we wrap up, one last caveat: please refrain from writing essays in response to your classmates (as in, “I can’t believe what a stupid dogshit essay that LAST guy wrote!”). Okay?
This exercise isn’t about poking holes in each other. It’s about entertaining each other by revealing ourselves, while we cultivate our skills.
Clearly, this is gonna come easier to some folks than others. If you blog, the odds are good that you’ve already got a running start.
But remember: this isn’t just about mouthing off (i.e. “expressing opinions”). Let’s cut a little closer to the soul.
Can’t wait to see what you guys and gals come up with! And again, thank you for being such a wonderful class.
Yer bare-assed instructor,
(OR: THE FINE ART OF BELIEVABLE RELATIONSHIPS)
by John Skipp
Dear class –
Great to see you again! And you’ll be either relieved or saddened to know that nobody has to die today. At least not in THIS class! (Sorry, Victor! Rest in peace, bro!)
This time, I’m gonna pull a reluctant “volunteer” from the furthest reaches of the classroom. And not one of you jokers in the back row, neither!
I need a relative loner today. One that’s off to the side, sitting by themselves, never raising their hand, but thinking about it a lot…
Yes, you! The elegantly-funky young lady in the pin-striped blazer and the neat fedora…
HO HO! Did you guys hear that horrible groan? That’s the sound of a Mystery Woman, about to be exposed. COME ON DOWN, YOU! It’s too late to argue. You’ve already been chosen.
THAT’LL teach ya to come to my fucking class!
Okay. So as she walks trepeditiously down to the front, with all of your glimmering eyes upon her, LET’S GIVE HER A BIG WARM HAND, everybody!
(Clappity clappity clap!)
Hi! Come on up. You look so embarrassed. It’s funny. See, you don’t dress like a shy person, but clearly you are. What’s your name…? Wow.
I don’t know you at all, but it seems to fit you very well.
So let’s take a look at your personal profile here, while you stand helplessly before us. Ready? Ah! AGAIN WITH THE HORRIBLE GROAN!
(Clappity clappity clap!)
So let’s see. You’re 37 years old. Five two. 140 pounds, give or take. Dark-eyed. Sharp-witted. Used to taking care of yourself.
Born in the country, hit the city on your own and never looked back. Prefer parks to wilderness, and urban decay to either. Are obsessed with watching struggling people, and trying to understand their lives.
You’ve been writing in your journal since you were five – is that really true? – but the only real writings you share with others are the letters and notes that you write to your friends.
So why are you in this class?
Because you like to watch people think.
Well, that’s about as good a reason as I can possibly imagine. SO HERE’S YOUR BIG CHANCE!
And here’s your assignment, boys and girls:
INVENT A FRIEND FOR CAMERON DELANCEY.
By which I mean a friend that she might actually have.
Popular entertainment is rife with convenient relationships, often born of narrative contrivance or the handy-dandy “Stock Friend” bin. Like the sitcom gay neighbor, or the best friend from high school that – 20 years later – still comes by every day to gossip or kvetch.
Mind you, I’m not ruling out hilarious gay neighbors or persistent high school pals, per se. I’m just saying that shit is easy. And when you do it, discerning readers are more apt to roll their eyes than not.
So think about the friends that you’ve valued through your life. WHY DO THEY MATTER? What’s the actual connection? What is that special confluence of elements that makes you want to hang out, as opposed to the trillion other people you might welcome into your life?
There are social components, emotional components, intellectual components, and situational components. Let’s not rule out the sexual, the spiritual, the codependent, the opportunistic, or the wholly dysfunctional.
From the safe and the true to the doomed and the damned, there’s a gamut of genuine connection that all of us experience with the people that matter in our lives.
Some relationships are clearly healthier than others.
But every time you make or discover a friend, there are actual reasons behind it.
So that’s your challenge. GIVE CAMERON A FRIEND. Describe that person well enough that we get why those two care about each other. Then briefly describe the relationship, in ways that illuminate not only her friend, but Cameron herself.
And while you’re at it, TRY TO MAKE IT FUN: both for yourself and the rest of the class.
If you can do that, you are well on your way to writing stories that people might actually care about.
Extra credit for anyone who makes me believe it.
Yer stern yet grinning taskmaster,
(LIVE ON THE SU CAMPUS, TONIGHT!)
by John Skipp
Dear kids –
HI, EVERYBODY! I can’t tell you how nice it is to back be in the classroom, after months of phoning in set reports from my latest big fat project (Code Name: Blah Blah Blah).
I’ve felt like a lousy teacher – no, no, seriously, I feel really bad – so tonight I wanted to do a little somethin’ special.
If you write horror – and I KNOW I DO! – then every so often, you’re gonna have to kill somebody. You may not like it, but it’s got to be done. So let’s talk a little bit about the hows, whys, and wherefors.
While we’re at it, let’s get a volunteer from the class! Somebody wanna come up and… yeah, YOU! The one in the unseasonable muscle shirt! What’s your name, man? Victor!
LET’S EVERYBODY GIVE VICTOR A HAND!
Now while he’s making his way up to the front, I want to remind you to fill out those forms we handed out at the top of the class. Just a couple of details about yourself.
And be honest, cuz truth is the heart of our business. Lies are only good for being sliced through, and exposed. Although they certainly do make things nice and juicy, so…
What the fuck. Do whatever you want. Just know: in good fiction, if you lie, you will be caught. And that can be fairly embarrassing, for an author or a character. And you’re either one, or the other, or both.
Okay, Victor! Let’s see what you got, here. 37 years old. Six foot one. 167 pounds. A little thin and gangly. Brown hair. Dark eyes. That all seems to check out, but it’s just surface detail.
So let’s see. You believe in God, but you’re not on good terms. You can’t stand your job hauling lumber down at Home Depot. Your friends make you sick. That goes double for your family. You’re smarter than the average bear. You used to have a drinking problem, but you’ve got it under control. You’re not a criminal, but sometimes that cash register looks awfully good. You actually slept with an ex-girlfriend last Wednesday, but it was the first time in months, and it was mostly just depressing.
Okay, so that gives us a little to work with. Now let me ask you this: why did you volunteer?
Because you wanna kill somebody! WOO-HOO! WHO DOESN’T, BABY? Let’s hear it for Victor!
So here’s the scenario. You get out of your car on a darkened street, a block and a half from the home of the asshole you’ve come to kill. Who is it? Your boss? Your ex? Oh… THE WOMAN WHO RUINED YOUR LIFE. I’d ask you to elaborate, but we don’t have all night.
So let’s say you’ve got a crowbar, cuz what you really wanna do is pry open her ribcage and find out if she’s actually got a heart in there.
Sounds like a plan, big guy!
You clutch the crowbar in your gloved right hand, shut the car door softly with your left, leave it unlocked. You wanna be able to jump and go. And since this is a fairly quiet neighborhood, unaccustomed to hideous violence, that’s probably a good call on your part.
Start walking. Suck in the night air. Feel the blood thud in your temples, hear it thunder in your ears. You can think about all the awful things she’s done to deserve this, but you’re probably better off concentrating on what’s right in front of you. Attention to detail is what keeps you locked in the moment, adrenalized, in motion.
You’re a character in our story now. We want to watch you move.
Three doors down, her bedroom light is on. God knows who she’s fucking in there. But it’s not you, and the thought makes your brain itch. You walk softly but swiftly, closing the tick-tock distance from here to there.
You were smart to wear sneakers.
But the clock is winding down.
You enter the yard, head toward the back door. The crowbar has multiple functions tonight. The downstairs is dark, but the back porch light is on. Convenient for you. But you have to wonder why.
That’s when you note the pair of doggie dishes, just off to the left of the door, as you breach the porch. Thinking Fuck! She got a dog? And tensing yourself for canine yappery.
Then something enormous growls behind you.
It is not a dog.
Now, Victor? We’re gonna leave you right there for a minute – dangling in terror – while I take this back to the class. Sorry about that.
Okay, class? WHADDAYA THINK?
Question # 1: Do we give a hoot about ol’ Victor?
Question # 2: How horrifically do you want him to die?
Cuz flat-out: this boy is gonna be burger and gristle in about one minute flat. Doesn’t matter whether you love, hate, disapprove, relate, or are completely indifferent to our young classmate.
Motherfucker’s goin’ down, right now.
And it’s your job to do it.
Depending on your intent and perspective, the modalities of mayhem have a trillion different options. You can be discreet. You can go full-throttle. You can empathize with Victor – whether you like him or not – or totally go with the monster/predator’s point of view.
Emotionally, there are all kinds of ways to play it. But stylistically, the polarities are minimalism and maximalism.
Absolute minimalism would be leaving it at my closing line: it is not a dog. We imagine the worst, but leave it unspoken.
Maximalism, on the other end, might entail him whirling to face three paragraphs of monstery description – dripping fangs, mottled hair, hell-black eyes, misshapen features, etcetera – before we even get to the throat tearing open, esophagus waggling, wet meat spray with eyeballs a-poppin’, viscera describing parabolic loop-dee-loops through the screaming night air. And so on, and so forth.
Me, I tend to dance between the two.
But your homework for tonight – should you choose to accept it – is to polish off ol’ Victor in some powerful, meaningful way. You can do it strictly for yourself, or post it right here on the SU Action Response Line, for others to enjoy.
There are no grades, but you get extra credit points if you use the crowbar, the doggie dishes, the back door, God, the woman who ruined his life, or any other details about Vic and his background to illuminate the situation in ways that bring laughs or pathos to bear.
And again: if you lie, you will be caught. If you cheat, that’s the same as lying.
Bottom line: you are killing a person. You are doing it to entertain, to horrify, to make a sick joke, to enlighten us all, to come to grips with the twin-edged sword of mortality, to get your rocks off, to mourn, or whatever you want. Whatever’s on your own writerly agenda.
The important thing is to make it count for something.
Otherwise, it’s just another wasted death.
And as a charter member of the “Clean Your Plate Club”, I hate to see a good death go to waste.
At the very least, feel free to apply whatever insights you like into your next act of mayhem, in your next work of fiction.
And, of course, always remember not to kill actual people in your real life. Unless they’re actually trying to kill you first. Cuz that would be bad.
DON’T BE A FUCKHEAD, is all I’m sayin’.
So thanks for taking part in tonight’s weird class! It’s been an honor and a pleasure. And I hope you had fun.
And one more time: LET’S HAVE A BIG HAND FOR VICTOR!
Yer pal and humble literary advisor in matters of meat and soul,
By Special Guest Columnist
[A note from John Skipp: Once again, I find myself so deep in the trenches that an essay worth sharing was nowhere within me. So I took the liberty of inviting the very brilliant, preposterously little-known Cody Goodfellow to pinch-hit for me. I hope that you find his meanderings meaningful, and go read every goddam thing that boy has ever written. Yer pal, Skipp]
The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.
The fungus is among us!
––Fred G. Sanford
Lately, I have been blessed with a rare chance to set aside those burdensome chores that always bog down the semi-professional horror writer –– writing and reading horror fiction –– and luxuriate in the fulfillment of what, lately, seems to be our cardinal duty: morbidly pondering the dismal future of our genre.
While my woolgathering hasn’t gotten me any closer to solving any of your problems, it has at least given me a tasty metaphorical model for judging how to better spend my time making the future of horror a little less dismal… if only for myself.
In order to define what ails, if not kills, the horror field time and again, I offer you the humble fly agaric mushroom.
(I know it tastes like shit, but don’t try to gulp it down all at once; better keep a bucket handy…)
Common throughout Eurasia, the amanita muscaria variety mushroom is a sacrament of Siberian shamanic spiritualism because of its incredibly potent psychoactive properties. The experience of ingesting fly agaric is fraught with perils, from nausea and seizures to overwhelming visions, unhinging revelations and retrograde amnesia, but the euphoric sensation of flying produced allegedly makes it worth doing.
The hallucinogenic toxins in fly agaric are water soluble, but so intense that they can be passed on in the shaman’s urine. In western Siberian tribes, the shaman consumes a brain-wracking few grams of mushrooms to experience a raw vision, then distills the experience for his flock from his bladder.
A fly agaric piss-trip is, naturally, much less intense than the real thing, but the chemicals that cause the hairy, scary parts of the trip––twitching, sweating, etc––are broken down by the shaman.
In eastern Siberia, where fly agaric is popular for recreational consumption, the poor must settle for drinking the electric piss of the rich, who can afford the scarce mushrooms, but apparently can’t afford to leave Siberia.
(How many fingers am I holding up? Hang in there, trooper, this’ll start making sense, soon…)
If Mark Twain was right about the lightning and the lightning bug, then I think the fly agaric ratio could be usefully applied to separating the wheat from the chaff in horror literature.
Think about it: the horror literature that works — that shocks, shatters conventions, and inspires hosts of imitators — is a portal into some unimaginable reality, so unspeakable that you start to forget that another human has come up with it. No matter how alien, how isolating, the vision, it somehow rings true, knocking on the atavistic door in some fundamental cellar of the brain that opens on the sunless sea of the collective unconscious.
It’s that little lightning-in-a-bottle miracle that comes along just often enough to keep you plowing through the endless piss taste-tests of modern small press horror markets.
This little miracle of literary shamanism isn’t worked by reckless experimentation with hallucinogens (not that there’s anything wrong with that*), but by ingesting the most potent hallucinogen of all: pure, undigested reality.
You don’t come up with a taboo-breaking story by aping the best book you ever read, or gleaning the latest freaky tidbits from science magazines. You find them by looking under every rock on the seashore until you discover something that would make Jacques Cousteau puke in his hip-waders.
For example: I don’t care how hardboiled your bookshelf and DVD library are, it’s no substitute for even a glancing flesh-on-flesh connection with the living, seething sleaze of the criminal underworld.
You can add all the flavor you like to your cunningly contrived, bladder-busting concoction. Feel free to spike it with other varieties of exotically distilled influences… but unless you’re trying to hunt down and engulf that wild, ineffable quality of reality that makes truth stranger than any fiction, you’re still just peddling third-hand piss.
My favorite authors, the ones who have unwittingly taught me my craft, all seemed to have learned to warp their own personal realities into metaphors that resonate like a dose of pure acid on the eyeball.
My own best stories have all sprouted from seeds of personal experience, that make the genre conventions with which I fertilize them sing and dance and eat each other. While I’ve had loads of fun tripping on pastiches of pulp and Mythos fiction, the fizz in the stuff is fleeting and hardly worth consuming, so long as someone out there is still writing their name in the snow with the freshest second-hand brain-trips, or, better yet, editing a risk-addicted market that dares you to do it, yourself.
To say that horror is a literature of vampires, werewolves and slashers is to do worse than sell it short; in essence, you are substituting mildly effective third-hand piss – with all the authentic twitching, sweating, fly-over-the-moon terror filtered out of it — for a still-steaming glass of the good stuff, with the spiky ibotenic acids and muscazones of undiluted surreality still sizzling and eager to go all Ken Russell on your gray matter.
Where horror is not merely a spikier variety of the same mental comfort food other readers find in westerns or romance novels, it is a literature of surprise. At its best, it should wield the power to teach us unacceptable truths about ourselves and our world.
As such, it’s not surprising that its future is forever in doubt, because such disturbing trips are not everybody’s idea of an ideal vacation; but I’d rather spend my life in a closet, washing down toxic genre mushrooms with my own bitter kidney-liquor, than go on guzzling ninth-generation literary piss with barely enough lift in it to make you think it’s Country Time.
(OK, put your head between your knees, relax, throw on some Allman Brothers, and have a glass of orange juice; by the way, where’s your wallet? Those babies ain’t free…)
*––None of this should be taken as an endorsement of, or encouragement to try, amanita muscaria or any other hallucinogenic substances. While I don’t subscribe to any Manichean notions of drugs as inherently evil or dangerous, it’s probably for the best that they remain illegal for the simple reason that many, if not most, people just can’t keep it together when their wrinkly gray shit hits the psychotropic fan (which just unfolds further wrinkles in this pretentious, McKennaesque wet dream of a metaphor…)
If you’re the kind of softboiled chucklehead who experiments with potentially harmful substances in hopes of writing more original stories, or just because some scrambled chucklehead suggests it in an article… do us both a favor, and stick with Nyquil…
CODY GOODFELLOW has written three novels, RADIANT DAWN, RAVENOUS DUSK and the forthcoming PERFECT UNION. Recent short story appearances include Hot Blood 13, A Dark & Deadly Valley and Fried: Fast Food, Slow Death. He likes jelly.
(DEATH OF A PLAYGROUND, SHIFTING GEARS, AND A RETURN TO THE PRIMACY OF THE WRITTEN WORD)
By John Skipp
Dear gang –
Last month, I filled you in on the fantastic location I was set to move into, in preparation for JAKE’S WAKE: both the novel and the feature film. With principal photography – i.e. the shoot itself – taking place in early December.
Juxtapose that with the title of this essay, and I think you’ll see where this is going.
1) A chunk of our funding fell through, at the last minute, coupled with the fact that…
2) This movie actually needs a little more money than we already have, in order to do it right, which means that…
3) We need to bump shooting back, until such funds are secured, which means that…
4) We lose the great location.
This is, of course, tremendously sad in many respects. But when you consider that the monthly cost of securing this location was $3,000 – essentially, the cost of the monthly mortgage payment – there’s no way you can drag that shit out for six months, on our budget. Four was gonna be bad enough.
So our investor eats the three grand he already threw in – thank God we didn’t already commence construction, or start furnishing the sonofabitch – and we go back to the hustle, and the waiting.
This is the point at which one might start sniveling about the unfairness of it all, and so forth. But fuck that.
NOW I FINISH THE NOVEL.
The good news is, I have grounded my story in a physical space. I have grounded my characters in a physical space. And by casting my actors, I have also grounded my characters in attributes that I might not have thought of myself.
This is, as I say, very good news indeed.
So I will burn down the novel over the next several months, using everything I have gained from the experience to ground the prose. Ground the content. Ground the everything.
My internal sense of place is entirely intact. I have photo and video references to keep those memories alive.
I have a richly visualized story that feels tight as a drum.
I think I’m gonna be alright.
The most disappointing aspect for me, I guess, is that the landscape described in the novel will not be the same landscape inhabited by the film.
So when people watch the film, they’ll doubtless go, “That’s not the way I pictured this house AT ALL!”
And for a while there, I thought that I might actually break the bell curve, and deliver a motion picture that mirrored PRECISELY the specifics of the prose, while allowing each of them to carry their respective loads.
Such are the vicissitudes of the film vs. novel collision. And I think it’s not a bad thing for lovers of novels and film to keep in mind, when comparing the book and the movie versions of a story they actually care about.
When it comes time to shoot the film, I will have to modify the script to conform with the new location I wind up with. Which is to say, it will not be precise. It will be something else.
I will doubtless find things in this new location that make me go, “FUCK! I wish I’d known this when I wrote the goddam novel!”
And I will also doubtless find myself going, “FUCK! I wish this place was shaped exactly like the old place, because I knew EXACTLY how to stage this shit, and make it play out great!”
The moral of the story is: you roll with the punches.
If you want to live a creative artist’s life, you are gonna take a lot of whacks. And they will whack you hard. It’s a lot like being a boxer of the soul, where the fisticuffs are less physical than mental, emotional, and spiritual.
If you manage to keep from being beaten down, stubbornness is key. But so is resilience: the ability to adapt to the circumstances that actually present themselves, and roll with them. Whether you like it or not.
To be the willow that bends with the wind, AND the rock that never stops being who it is.
This is the best advice I will probably ever give you.
And so it is, with love, that I return to the business of kicking the baddest ass I can. And leave you with this invocation, my friends:
And do what you love.
And never, ever stop engaging this life with the best of your energy, effort, vision, and hope.
Even if you lose a little sometimes, you gain a lot over the long haul.
And that’s the only definition of winning that means dick to me.
Yer good pal,
(ON THE PROFUNDITY OF KNOWING WHERE YOU ARE, AND WHERE YOUR STORY IS SET, PRECISELY)
by John Skipp
Dear kids –
You wanna talk about ADVENTURE!
Over the last week, something happened that changed the course of my actiive creative life, both temporarily and forever.
Which is to say, we locked down the actual central shooting location for JAKE’S WAKE: as both a book, and a motion picture.
It’s a very weird, very eccentrically designed home in the middle of fucking nowhere (which is to say, Claremont, CA): a single-story ranch house that looks like it got hit with a flame thrower from God until it loosened up its structural integrity, and then was stretched to three times its natural length.
As such, it’s got a canted ceiling, and a single hallway that extends down the middle of its entirety – passing room after room, both doored and otherwise, in an almost Kubrickian fashion — and once you’ve gone as far as you think you can go, the hallway VEERS SHARPLY TO THE LEFT, and then proceeds for what seems like another whole house’s length.
It doesn’t look anything like the house I envisioned, over the slightly-more-than-a-year I’ve spent actively visualizing this story.
But now that I’ve seen it – and know that it’s ours – I can finally physicalize my story.
And I can’t tell you how enormous that is.
Cuz here’s the thing: I don’t like to even start writing a story if I don’t know precisely where it’s set.
If I can’t taste, smell, see, hear, and touch every part of it. explicitly, then I don’t know where the hell I am. I can’t put my hands on stuff. I can’t look at and describe it with authority.
From a literary standpoint, I cannot do shit.
When Skipp & Spector wrote the early New York splatterpunk novels – THE LIGHT AT THE END, THE CLEANUP, DEAD LINES – we were infinitely aided by our jobs as street messengers. We were all over Manhattan, all day, every day: sussing the streets, the offices, the subways, the kiosks and coffee houses, the elevators, the parks, the penthouses and slums, and everything between.
We knew where we were, every step of the way. Had everything geographically located. And sensorially nailed.
That made it very easy to make everything feel real.
And that, as a storyteller, is the best feeling in the world.
If you know your story’s place, then it’s easy to put real live people in the middle of it. Easy to notice the details they catch. Easy to live in there, too.
And that’s another thing: LOCATIONS TELL ME STORIES. The second I walk in, and look around, I start thinking about what could happen here. Locations speak to me. Tell me how they want to look, and how the ways they ACTUALLY look bespeak their soul.
Kinda like everything and everyone else.
So I could go on and on about how cool it is that I get to create this next story ON THE ACTUAL SITE OF THAT STORY: visualizing everything, painting the walls, tearing down walls and creating new ones, inhabiting every room, wall, floor, and ceiling with doodads that illuminate the people and story involved.
And the most astonishing is that I’m gonna live in that house – and on that set – for the next four months.
Not everybody gets a luxury like that.
In all my years of creativity, I’ve never had a playground quite precisely this flexible, palpable, and entirely all-encompassing.
But my point for you, tonight – no matter what you’re working on, or how you’re hoping to play it – is this:
THERE IS NO SUBSITITUTE FOR A SOLID LOCATION. It grounds you in innumerable, inarguable, and inescapable ways.
All of which are to your advantage.
And to your readers, as well.
The more fantastic and transcendent your stories get, the more they demand this sort of grounding.
I hope this was helpful.
Yer adventurous pal,
(TELLING STORIES FROM THE OUTSIDE, THE INSIDE, AND ALL THE WAY THROUGH)
by John Skipp
Dear kids –
Turns out I’ve got an insane little multi-media challenge in front of me, over the next several months. It’s the kind of insanely ambitious project I’ve always wanted to tackle; but now that I’m actually doing it, it is thoroughly kicking my ass.
1) I’ve got one month to completely rewrite my JAKE’S WAKE screenplay, in order to produce and direct the actual feature film in early December.
2) I’ve got four months to complete the novel JAKE’S WAKE, in order to get it into bookstores next summer.
In other words, I’ve got a modest but legitimate cash deal for each. Which is an absolutely wonderful thing.
The flipside, of course, is that I’ve got AT LEAST TWO WHOPPING SHITLOADS OF WORK TO DO, in order to pull this off.
Which is to say, yep: it’s another one of those “Be careful what you wish for, CUZ YOU JUST MIGHT GET IT” scenarios Rod Serling liked to warn us about (and we wonder why that poor bastard chain-smoked four packs a day!).
So, anyway: here’s how I’m approaching the whole thing, strategically. So as to actually make it not only happen, but maybe even make it sing.
First things first. I’ve got to tell myself this story in relatively broad strokes. And tell it from start to finish. Making note of every scene that needs to take place. Making it tight, and propulsive, and virtually fat-free.
At the same time, I need to clock all the implications of the story I’m telling. Recognize the themes both large and small. Make sure the character stuff reflects the big picture, and vice versa.
Make sure that everything that needs to get said and done is right there, in the framework.
I give myself a week for this, as a solid first draft. I give myself 30 single-spaced pages, max, to play with.
From there, I move on to
THE SHOOTING SCRIPT
Now I concentrate on sound and vision exclusively, within the parameters of a 90-minute story. One page of script per minute of movie is the accepted unit of measurement. So I’m looking at maybe 90 single-spaced pages. (Minus opening and closing credits, I’m thinking more like 85.)
Understand: this is a low-budget film. Think NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD/HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER low. There will be no Bruce Willis driving a car through the air to collide with a fucking helicopter here. (And no big dumb CGI monsters, neither!)
Every single penny counts. Because every single second costs.
And I am cool with that.
So I am essentially tripling the size of the outline: adding in all the important dialogue, and showing the actors and camera how to tell the story.
Which means that – even though I am extending the narrative – I’m still dialed down to nothing but the key moments needed to make a great film, fleshed out just enough to count with maximum impact. Cutting to the chase, in every conversation. Moving quickly from one pivotal act to the next. Catching deeper details on the fly, by implication, or just leaving ‘em out altogether. For now.
Honed-down dialogue. Amped-up action. Mood set with minimal verbiage and ultra-tight, ultra-specific visual imagery.
I give myself three weeks for this working draft. Possibly four.
And then two more things happen.
a) We bring the full production team together, and start workshopping the script. Hire a production designer to lock down the look of the set. Hire fx artists to design the effects. Secure and photograph the location, so everyone knows what we have to work with. Bring the Director of Photography back in, so we can design the lighting and the shots. Bring the actors back in, so we can dial the performances. Get my studio back up and running, so I can start recording the original score. And…
b) I start writing
At this point, I have the story locked down and fleshed out with dialogue, momentum, and (presumably) powerful imagery.
Now it’s time to get inside these characters, and experience it from their points of view. Live inside their skins, in the moment-to-moment, and express all the things that a movie just can’t.
It’s time to let the language dance around the beats pre-set by the outline and screenplay. Time to connect all the dots, both seen and unseen.
Time, in short, to act like a real fucking writer.
All of the previous steps are essential for the collaborative act that is film. And they will come in INCREDIBLY handy, in the context of writing the novel.
But in many ways, I feel like screenwriting isn’t real writing at all. It’s just the verbal part of filmmaking: a weird combination of storytelling shorthand and organizational blueprint haiku.
A screenplay comes alive when you start shooting, on a pre-dressed and pre-lit location. The actors bring the characters to life. The production designer brings the location to life. And the camera writes it all down on film or digital videotape.
In the novel, it’s all down to the words. And if they don’t come to life – and bring the life of the story vibrantly into the reader’s life, with all of the muscle and insight and emotion and soul intact – well, then it’s bound to be a pretty shitty novel.
I’ve given myself three months to write it, double-spaced out across some 80,000 words.
And then I shoot the film.
The coolest thing about this whole process, for me, is that the mediums get to feed each other. Stuff I learn while writing the novel will doubtless inform the final shooting script.
And things I learn, while building the film, will doubtless clarify and deepen the novel.
The macro-lens is the overview: looking at the story as if from above; ascertaining its structural integrity; making sure the center holds.
Micro-gnosis comes in with all the little details, those places where God (and yeah, yeah, the Devil, too) resides.
In this way, I hope to build a book and film that reinforce each other, while thoroughly standing by themselves.
And since I’m doing the music, maybe you’ll get a nice soundtrack album, too!
WISH ME LUCK, is all I’m sayin’.
And I hope this has been useful, in the course of devising your own storytelling plans.
Yer tough l’il’ monkey-pal,
(WANTONLY PROBING THE NEW FRONTIERS OF WRITERLY HYPE FOR ALL)
by John Skipp
Dear gang –
All year, I’ve been wanting to shoot a commercial for THE LONG LAST CALL, my most recent alarming horror novel.
And why, you might ask, would I want to do this evil thing?
It’s like this:
The mass market paperback is coming out this September, from Leisure Books. They are excited about pushing it as “The Return of John Skipp” – making it kind of a big deal, which is exactly what you WANT your publishers to do – and I just thought it would be cool to send the Leisure sales force some goodies to play with.
And what could be better, I asked myself, than a weird, stylish promotional video? A video with lots of “MEEEEE!!!” all over it, self-promoting like the shameless motherfucker that I am?
I wanted to do it for fun. I wanted to do it for the experience. But mostly, I wanted to do something that would MAKE PEOPLE WANT TO READ THE BOOK.
Just to see if it actually worked.
In fact, I’d hoped to shoot it in February, back when we wrapped JAKE’S WAKE. But my crew got busy on other gigs, and the money was used up, and then we lost our key location, and blah blah blah blah blah.
But while I got sidetracked by the vicissitudes of life, I’d already gotten Leisure thoroughly psyched on the idea.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered – courtesy of my awesome girlfriend – that Leisure had gone ahead and made one without me.
Which you can take a look at, by heading over to www.youtube.com, and doing a search for “John Skipp”.
I’m really curious as to what you guys think.
Personally, I think it’s INCREDIBLY COOL that they sunk a couple of bucks into this thing. The fact that they went to that extra effort is astonishing, and rare.
But it also underscores a couple of central facts about commercials for books:
1) THERE’S NOT A LOT OF MONEY LAYIN’ AROUND FOR THIS SORT OF THING.
The fact is, shooting original footage takes time, planning, equipment, people, a place to shoot, etc. And most of those things ain’t free.
That’s why the Leisure ad is full of snippets from pre-existing material (toothpaste and lingerie commercials, for example), purchased intact and then edited together around snippets of dialogue from the book.
To the producer/director’s credit, the book was clearly studied at some length. The dialogue airlifts in from all over the story, not just the opening chapter. Certain themes were evoked, or at least mentioned.
The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t feel at all like the book I wrote.
Which brings me to:
2) THAT PERSONAL TOUCH.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: most of what a writer brings to the literary party is their own distinctive point of view. How they plot. How they people their stories. What their deeper concerns are. What their sense of humor – or drama, or compassion – is made of.
The author’s voice – their personality, and the dance of their language – is what creates the feel.
I think that’s kind of important.
The commercial – of if you prefer, EPK (electronic press kit) – is also good for introducing the writer as an interesting character whom you might like to meet, or read a nice story from.
Creating interest – not just from the reading audience – but from bookstore owners/bookers/buyers who might want you to appear at their store.
Or talk show hosts who might want to have you on the program. Or college professors who might like you to lecture for their students. And so on. Etcetera. Etcetera.
Which is why I’d like to postulate the following notion:
3) THE AUTHOR AS OWN BEST SALESPERSON.
Obviously, not every writer has this skill. But if you can talk clearly and enthusiastically about your book, in an entertaining manner, THAT JUST MIGHT COME IN HANDY!
So here’s what I’m gonna do.
I’m going to get my little pro crew together – camera, lights, boom mic, sound, and electrical – in a big dark room. I’m gonna keep the lighting very stark, simple, dramatic. Mostly shadow, with pools of light. Total noir. In black and white.
I’ll have a list of questions that I want to be asked. I’ll have notes, just as I would for any speaking engagement.
But mostly I’ll just riff, improvising on the themes, talking about the story I know so well.
I’m also gonna shoot a couple of hot, striking visuals from the story, in color, which I may or may not use.
Should take about three hours to shoot, and maybe five to edit. Probably cost me $300, max.
Again, this may sound crazy, or entirely beside the point of the writer’s business.
But in the time it took for me to get around to this shit, Simon & Schuster has set up a new video website with 40 authors on it, and more to come. Digital promos are being used by Hyperion, HarperCollins, and Penguin to motivate sellers and sales. And Leisure, God bless ‘em, just took the jump with me.
In short, it’s not just the wave of the future, but of the actual present.
Something to think about, boys and girls.
Me, I’m doing it for the fun. For the experience.
And to see if it actually works.