Archive for June, 2010

Ray Harryhausen

Posted in Film on June 30, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

You see the monster in the picture? Does it look familiar? It should do. Many of you will have seen it countless times on TV reruns; some of you may even have been lucky enough to have seen the Cyclops in the film it features in, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), in the cinema when it came out. It was the creation of the master of stop-motion animation, Ray Harryhausen, an art that he made singularly his own. And yesterday was the maestro’s 90th birthday, a fact that I only discovered late in the day (and yes, I do live in my own bubble most of the time, isolated from and inoculated against the world around me).

Stop-motion animation was the technique film-makers used to make their monstrous creations live before the advent of CGI and all that flashy, shiny, smooth and almost too-realistic nonsense came on the scene. At its simplest, an actual physical model of the monster would be made in latex, built over an articulated wire armature and each movement would be painstakingly animated millimetre-by-millimetre, frame-by-frame against a back-projection of the already-filmed live-action scene. Each sequence would take months to complete. During the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and even up until the 1970s it was the main method of animating and integrating monsters for actors to fight or for bringing fantasy creatures to life in live-action films.

Ray Harryhausen, born in 1920, was inspired to enter the field by the pioneer stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien, after seeing his work in the King Kong films. From that moment Harryhausen experimented with the technique, refining and perfecting it. He gained his first job on George Pal’s Puppetoons shorts, then was employed by the Army Motion Picture Unit during WW2. His first ‘real’ job was when the very man who had inspired him, Willis O’Brien, hired him as an assistant animator on his film Mighty Joe Young (1949), which went on to win an Oscar for Visual Effects.

His career burgeoned from then on, starting with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and going all the way through to The Clash of the Titans (1981), via such memorable films as 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), the Sinbad series, (7th Voyage [1958], The Golden Voyage of Sinbad [1974] and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger [1977]), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), One Million Years BC (1966), and The Valley of Gwangi (1969). Titans was the last film where he was actively involved in the creation of the effects sequences, but his involvement with the industry that he gave so much to has continued in other capacities since then.

The bottom line is, though, that like many others of my generation and earlier, his work in those films opened up a whole new world of wonder and imagination. In that sense, just like his mentor O’Brien, he was a pioneer. Yes, in comparison to today’s whizz-bang computer-generated special-effects and animated films, his monsters and the way they move appear primitive and shaky. But to me, THAT is part of their appeal – the fact that even though we know that they’re only 12″ high models they still have a distinct life of their own, that they appear to move under their own steam. Even more pertinently, they have character, completely identifiable ones at that. I remember, for instance, when watching Jason and the Argonauts for the first time, that I felt genuinely sorry for Talos, the giant living statue, when his ‘life’ drained away in the way it did. (He also scared me rigid when, after the hero enters the plinth he rested on, he slowly turns his head…). And who can forget the Children of the Hydra sequence in the 7th Voyage of Sinbad, when armed skeletons emerge from the ground subsequent to the slain monster’s teeth being scattered on it. Absolutely terrifying!!

But my particular favourite scene is the Kali sequence from the second Sinbad film, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. A pre-Dr. Who Tom Baker plays the role of Koura, who, when cornered by Sinbad (John Philip Law – better known as Pygar, the angel, in Barbarella [1968]), sorcerously causes a statue of the six-armed goddess to become a sword-wielding death-machine. An incredibly nail-biting sequence of fantasy cinema, Sinbad’s demise is only averted when Kali is pushed off a platform to shatter on the floor below. (The film also features ‘scream-queen’ Caroline Munro, the darling of Hammer movie buffs, and a pre-The Professionals Martin Shaw as Rachid. Another, more trivial, aside: I have always wanted a Kali tattoo, probably partly inspired by watching that scene. I still want one, just need to find some space in amongst the other tattoos…)

The thing is, the magic of Harryhausen’s creations have always stayed with me (as they have with many others) no matter how long ago I saw the films. I like CGI as much as the present generation of cinema-goers do (as long as they’re not at the expense of the story – unfortunately all-too frequent these days), but, however shaky some may consider the creatures and monsters inhabiting Harryhausen’s worlds are, they will always, ALWAYS, stand head and shoulders above the efforts of today’s effects masters.

So, all it remains for me to do is to end this piece with these words:

HAPPY BELATED BIRTHDAY, RAY!! MAY YOU CONTINUE TO HAVE GOOD HEALTH AND THAT YOU HAVE MANY MORE YEARS AHEAD OF YOU YET!! MOST OF ALL, THOUGH, THANKS FOR ALL YOUR INCREDIBLE CINEMATIC MAGIC AND THE INSPIRATION THAT HAS FLOWED FROM IT!

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Guest-blog spot: KATHE KOJA

Posted in Guest-blog, Writing and words on June 29, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

I am very privileged to introduce this month’s guest-blogger, Kathe Koja. She has been in the business of writing for 25 years and has given us many thought-provoking and memorable stories over that time. Her books include (for adults) The Cipher, Bad Brains, and Skin: and, for young adults, Buddha Boy, The Blue Mirror and Kissing the Bee. She has also written many short stories with Bary N. Malzberg. Her latest novel, Under the Poppy, will be out October 2010 and is being developed into an ‘immersive’ stage show. Many thanks to Kathe for taking the time to write this!!

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YOU AND ME AND FLANNERY

I don’t know if the word I want is “bemusement”, but I certainly feel something between nausea and wonder when I hear writers talk about tailoring their work to market trend bullet points or writing conference how-tos or something someone once said online about What’s Hot in Publishing Today. Before How To there is, or should be, Why To. Why do you write, stories, novels, essays, poems, whatever? Why do you sit behind the keyboard, the notebook, in the first place, or at all?

The best answer I’ve ever heard came from the great Flannery O’Connor, who said she wrote because she was good at it.  I understand that to mean she wrote because it was a necessary – maybe THE necessary – component of her being, of the way she had existence in the world; and she knew this was so because in the development of her talent, that act of writing felt right to her, it came naturally: she had the gift. And in the exercise of that gift, what she made kept getting better and better (though not, of course, without a lot of effort – she was a slow writer and a dogged and champion rewriter). She did it because she was good at it, and because she was willing to give it everything she had every time she did it, we now have Hazel Motes, and the serial-killing Misfit, the awful Mary Grace and the even more awful Mrs. Turpin, and Parker and his Jesus-ly tattooed back. We have the novels and the collected stories; we have the world she made out of the world she observed.

Now superimpose those bullet points and publishing currents onto Flannery O’Connor and her gift and her methods; try to, anyway, if you can stand to do it, and then wonder what might have become of that world and those characters, what stories of hers we would still have, if we would have known about her, at all – if she had stopped to seriously think and consider just what Current Market Trends had to say to her. If she had consulted anything other than the gift, the swimming images, the ideas, the struggle, the calm daily ferocity of the page… Well. You tell me.

If we’re serious about our work, if we’re really writers, then we’re Flannery too, and the only way we’ll ever get the book in our heads – the one we need, beyond everything, to write, and know, with effort and laughter and despair, that we CAN write – that world we’ll make sent whole into the world around us, is to stop worrying about current market trends in publishing and who says what’s going to sell to what house in what format, and sit down and write that novel, story, poem, whatever, until it’s the best writing we can produce. In my own 25-year career, I know that the outcome is always best when I work in joy, without a single thought in my head as to what will eventually become of the finished work in the marketplace; like THE CIPHER, or STRAYDOG, or UNDER THE POPPY, I didn’t think or figure the angles as I wrote those books, I just wrote them because I needed to, because Nicholas and Rachel and Rupert and Istvan were, are, my Misfit and my Hazel and my Mary Grace.

If you’ve got the gift, you’re good at it, and if you’re good at it, we need to hear exactly what your Mary Grace, your Misfit, has to say to us. So please go sit down and write until it’s the best work you can do, until it’s done, and then send it out into the world. Nothing else matters. Just write the words.

Kathe’s website can be found here.

MORE STORY SUCCESS…

Posted in Writing and words on June 28, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

I am humongously pleased to announce that my story, “The Wages of Sin”, has just been accepted for publication in the Winter 2010/11 edition of Dark Valentine Magazine, due for free dowload in the first week of December… watch out for it!!

This has definitely been an excellent first nine months of being a writer… I have submitted five times (with four stories) and three of them have been accepted – a very good return if you ask me…

This, naturally, has encouraged me enormously… and I will be continuing to write and submit… and learn… and having fun….  =)

Light Boxes, by Shane Jones

Posted in Book Reviews on June 28, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Two words here: delightfully quirky. This really isthe only way to describe the magical, hallucinogenic and psychedelic fairy-tale that isLight Boxes, Shane Jones’ short debut novel, originally published through Baltimore’s Publishing-Genius Press in an edition of 500, and now issued by Hamish Hamilton, as well as being optioned for film by director Spike Jonze (‘Where the Wild Things Are’). To be fair, it stretches the definition of what is usually considered a novel – it’s more along the lines of an experimental story told in a series of prose poems. For a start, it’s a small book, in both size and page count (167 pages), consists of a number of extremely short, sharp ‘chapters’ (the longest being just under five pages but most often shorter, with each written from the point of view of one of the story’s characters or the omnipresent narrator), with some ‘chapters’ being just numbered lists and with yet others being simply a single sentence on a page. In addition, fonts and letter-sizes are expressively played with as well, helping to tell the story as well as creating an unsettling edginess to what is already a strange, surreal tale.

February is holding the inhabitants of a town hostage to snow, cold and grey skies, and has decreed that all flight, of whatever kind (even that of birds), must cease completely. To make matters worse for them, he has been kidnapping the children of the town. Thaddeus and Selah are the parents of Bianca, whose own kidnap prompts her father, in alliance with The Solution (a group of bird-masked and top-hatted balloonists dedicated to restoring flight), the Professor (the inventor of the light boxes of the title), Caldor Clemens (a seven foot giant), the townspeople and the buried children to wage war against their icy oppressor, because slowly, surely, February’s cold is killing the townspeople and sapping them of happiness. Simply put, they’re metaphorically fighting for their very existences and physically for the return of the other, warmer seasons. And that is it, in a nutshell.

Many of the classic elements of the fairytale abound here: a surreal location that exists in some nameless ‘otherwhere’, missing children, strange occurrences, bizarre larger-than-life technicolour characters and a classic bogeyman figure, but delineated with Jones’ playfully quirky imagination. Above all, danger and an ever-present but nameless threat bubble just below the surface, waiting to break through and overwhelm. Additionally, there are deeper truths that resonate strongly with both history and human nature, elements that we can all relate to in one way or another. It’s these deeper elements that drive the story along, chiming with a primal need to see balance restored, satisfaction achieved and things put back in their proper place.

Quite simply Jones writes beautifully. His employment of imagery is startling, painting bright pictures of a strangely beguiling, yet dangerously threatening, land, a place that’s an unnervingly disturbing mixture of the fantastical and the real. His language is poetic, inventive, and dreamlike. At times his writing is elusive, like something seen vaguely at the edges of a mist, and at others as substantial as the characters themselves. The narrative is often disorientating, just like dreams are apt to be, with shifting perspectives which weave dizzily between viewpoints, ultimately leading us to question even an imaginary world. Additionally, Jones has an uncanny knack of hiding layers of meaning and complexity beneath a charming, seemingly superficial, simplicity. And this is where the power of his writing originates: that it can be read on many different levels, and can be enjoyed fully whichever one you happen to land on.

Jones has since published another book, The Failure Six, through a small-press publisher, Fugue State Press of New York and which Wikipedia describes as ‘a modern fable set in a society that has come to favour written messages over talking’. If Light Boxes is anything to go by, then this one, too, will summarily make the leap to the mainstream. Again, if the quality is consistent across the two books, then I predict that it won’t be long before the name of Shane Jones graces the bookshelves of discerning readers across the globe.

The original review can be found here.

The Art of Characterisation

Posted in Writing and words on June 27, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

There’s a distinct art to creating believable characters, an art which can be further divided into creating ones for short stories and those for novels. If you like, short story characters can be thought of as brief but telling sketches, whilst those created for novels are the fully painted portraits. Necessarily, writing characters for the shorter tales is often harder, as the author needs to outline them through words, actions and speech in as brief a space as possible without interrupting the flow of the story, and without exceeding a comfortable word-count. Obviously, in a novel, there’s considerably more leverage and more space, enabling the writer to sketch out the character initially and then flesh them out as they build up the story over the course of the plot.

I once remember seeing, many many years ago, a short black and white film of Pablo Picasso painting a sketch of a bull on glass – it was the greatest exposition of drawing character in as few lines as possible ever, and, extrapolating it to writing, could be taken as an object lesson on how to a capture character so economically. There were no extraneous or distracting details: he drew it quickly and precisely. It wasn’t just that it looked like a bull, it WAS a bull. Everything we know of bulls was there, in just those few lines. Picasso also drew a rooster on paper, this time less realistically and more abstractly, but again it was a masterclass in brevity and in pinning down the essence of a rooster. Looking at it, I could hear the rooster crowing loudly.

This is what writers need to do – draw out the essential characteristics of the figures who people their story and make them entirely real, in short sharp sketches, and without any unnecessary wastage. In a short story no-one wants to read thick slabs of disruptive description, so supplement brief verbal depictions with pertinent actions and modes of speech to help fill them out. Even in a short story there is ample space in which to do that. People want action, to know what’s happening and how the characters are reacting to the situation. In essence, what the characters do when confronted by whatever it is that’s happening to them should be enough to tell the reader exactly what kind of people those characters are.

Doing this could mean the difference between writing a 10,000 word tale instead of the 5,000 word one called for. Sure, we want our readers to identify with the people we create on the page – but describing everything about your main protagonists will only get in the way of that. Plus any good editor will point this out to you: no matter how good the story is, if the flow is impeded by unnecessary descriptive passages he/she will ask that you take them out or rewrite them. The temptation is always there when you start out writing to try and describe every minute detail, but, as you hone your craft, however, you learn that not everything need be delineated, only the absolute essentials. The art, for the good writer, is in knowing what those essentials are and just putting enough in to help things along. Experience, and continual writing, will help you learn that.

But, if you want the space to flesh out your characters more, I suggest you that you go straight for the novel instead…. =)

So….

Posted in Writing and words on June 26, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

… my story, “The Wages of Sin”, has now been submitted to Dark Valentine Magazine for its Fall 2010 issue, suggested as a possible venue by Paul David Brazill of  the “You Would Say That, Wouldn’t You…?” blog…. now there’s just the nail-biting wait for 2 – 3 weeks…

In the meantime, I still have the “Eating Out” story to write, so that’s not so bad, plus this blog to maintain and book reviews to do…. I’m sure those weeks will go by very quickly….

Watch this space for further news…. =)

Acceptances and beyond….

Posted in Writing and words on June 26, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

My latest story, “The Wages of Sin”, is just undergoing a final tweak as I write this – it’s been a particularly hard, but ultimately gratifying, tale to write. So far, it’s had roughly six or seven rewrites, along with a lot of fine-tuning – and, if nothing else, it’s taught me a lot about consistency and suspension of disbelief. Every little thing that occurs has to be justified and made believable. It would be too easy to just think ‘that’ll do’, in which case you can’t seriously expect readers to take you seriously as a writer. If there’s one thing that I am, it’s that I am very serious about my writing. So, I am carefully going through the story, bolstering certain sections, taking bits out here and there, and just generally making it read and flow better.

Sometime in the next few days, then, I’ll submit it somewhere – where that’ll be I have no idea as of yet. Some in-depth research is needed over the weekend, for sure. Even if I do get the story accepted, it might not, indeed, probably won’t, stop there. It’s quite likely that the publisher will request edits – it’s very rare that a story will make it into print without them. Even top authors get asked to make edits. That’s why there are such people as editors.

So, if you have submitted something and have had it accepted, but they’ve asked you to make some edits, what do you do? You discuss it with the editor and make the necessary edits, of course. The last thing they want to deal with is an arsey writer demanding that they leave his ‘art untouched’. The editor can just come back with ‘okay, if you’re going to be difficult then I’m choosing another story by another author. matey…’. It’s their book – they don’t have to include what you’ve sent them if they don’t want to. Besides, you really don’t want to give yourself the reputation of being a difficult person to deal with right from the very word go, do you?

Discussions with the editor will help to resolve any issues before they get to any potential impasse. Your editor, hopefully, will have sufficient experience to judge whether a submission is suitable or not, plus whether it needs further refinement. On top of that, a good editor should know his audience and their expectations very well – if he/she likes your story but needs you to make slight adjustments in order to make it fit the requirements of the publication, then do so. After all, your first priority is to get some exposure, and to get your name out there. (Remember, the internet is a powerful communications tool – if you gain a reputation as one those prima donna writers who wants everything their own way, others will get to hear about it very soon.)

What any writer wants is for people to read their material – helping to smooth the journey from author to final publication can only be a good thing. So take note…