Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Echoes: Part 3


These are busy days. In addition to finishing the manuscript of Vipers (the followup novel to last year's Veins), I'm looking forward to a fair number of readings and signings. The next event is tomorrow, at the Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, PA. After that I plan to finish Vipers and send it off before sending myself to World Fantasy, where, in addition to moderating a panel on rural fantasy, I plan to take part in the debut of Gaslight Grotesque, the new Sherlock Holmes anthology edited by Charles Prepolec and J. R. Campbell. Then its off to more readings in Pennsylvania and Delaware. In short, busy.

With so much happening, there's a good chance I'll be putting this blog on hold for a while, coming back to it when I can. We'll see how things shake out in the days to come, but for now I want to make good on my promise to finish a story about the origins of "Echoes." If you haven't read this week's earlier postings, go take a look. There's no point in reading the ending unless you know the beginning.

For those of you who have been here right along, the story continues:

The morning after she agreed to help my grandmother, my grant aunt told my father to get ready. They were going out for the day. “My boys, too?” my father asked. “Yes. All of you. We’re going out.” And so the five of them, my great aunt, my father, and the three river-builders climbed into a Buick and drove off into the haze of a Pittsburgh morning.

That evening, when the table was being set for dinner, only two returned.

My father looked at the table. “Who are all these plates for?”

“For the boys,” my grandmother said.

“What boys?”

My grandmother looked at my great aunt. My great aunt said nothing.

The boys were gone, never to be heard from again.

Neither my great aunt nor my father ever acknowledged what had happened to those boys, or where they had gone on that long day away from home, and it was in that mystery that I felt the stirrings of a story. In the days that followed, I must have worked out a dozen different plots, but none of them held. I wanted something different, something that hadn’t been done before, and gradually the story began to change and, as is often the case, move away from the spark that had started the kindling.

“Echoes” is about neither my great aunt nor my father, but within it is the sense of mystery that I felt when I first listened to my grandmother’s story twenty-five years ago.

The story has done well for itself, and to this day it reminds me that writers should resist shutting out the world. We must be dedicated to the process of creating stories, but we must nevertheless remain open to the stories that surround us.

And now, if you'll excuse me, that world is calling. I will resume this blog when I can.

Until then, keep the vision.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Echoes: Part 2


I opened yesterday's post by musing about a presentation at the Kiski School, which led to some reflections on the long history of "Echoes," one of the stories that I presented there -- a story that first appeared in Twilight Zone Magazine and then went on to be reprinted in numerous anthologies, foreign and domestic. I'm always intrigued how one thing leads to another. Connect, always connect.

I make it a point to tell my students that writers need to do more than write well. They need to read widely, of course. But they also need to get out in the world, mix with people, listen and observe.

As I suggested at the end of yesterday's post, the story "Echoes" began with listening.

Here's the second part of the story I started yesterday, right where it left off:

My grandmother asked, “Did I ever yell you about your father’s sons?”

I considered the questions. “My brothers?”

“Oh, heavens! No,” she said. “He was five, then.”

I felt as if I had missed something. “Who was five?”

“Your father?”


“When he had his son.” She spoke with a matter-of-factness that seemed to say, But of course it’s the most natural thing in the world. Why are you having trouble with it? “He called them his boys,” she said. “There were three of them, and if you ignored them he became terribly upset.”

She told me how the boys always had to have places set for them at the table, and how he would regale the dinner table with tales of their accomplishments. “Today they built a river,” he would say, and everyone would be expected to ooh and awe. Naturally, it got tired fast. “Your great aunt saw that it was going too far,” she said. “And one day she asked me if I wanted her to get rid of the boys.”

By now I was hooked. Any story with my great aunt in it was worth listening to. She was an eccentric in a family of eccentrics, an independent woman who had never married, never had children, but nevertheless had always seemed to possess a great sense of what it was to be a child.

My grandmother continued, speaking in my great aunt's voice: “I can do it, you know. I can get rid of those boys. Just let me know.”

My grandmother didn’t need much time to think it over. She told my great aunt to go ahead, give it a try. After all, there was nothing to lose but three imaginary kids -- right?

Tomorrow, I'll tell you what happened to those boys and how my grandmother's account of it became the impetus for a story that has remained in print for three decades.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Echoes: Part 1

I’ve been seeing a lot of Pennsylvania lately.

Last Monday I drove two hours east through predawn darkness, traveling mostly on two-lane highways that finally led to the Kiski School’s 350-acre campus in the hills above the town of Saltsburg.

I was there to present Visions and Soundscapes, a multimedia reading designed to share highlights form Visions, Veins, and Veins: the Soundtrack – all from Fantasist Enterprises. The venue for the event was the Rogers Theatre, a nicely equipped space, perfect for a reading featuring recorded sound and projected images.

The screen and projector were in place when I arrived, all I needed was to hook up my laptop, adjust the image, and balance the sound. I also needed to set up my Stratocaster and amp (since the presentation includes a live performance of some of the music from the CD).

An hour and a half later, everything was ready to go.

An hour and a half? Actually that’s not bad for setting up and making sure all the sound and video cues work. If there’s one thing I learned about taking a multimedia presentation on the road, it’s that the setup always takes longer than you think. That morning at Kiski, I had actually hoped I might get a chance to step outside before the reading and watch the sun rise over the mountains. But it wasn’t to be. Within seconds of checking the last cue, people began arriving, and it was time to start the overture.

The readings included three of the darker stories in Visions – “Aberrations,” “Echoes,” and “Step on a Crack” – selections that, while not providing a representative cross-section of the book's contents (Visions actually contains far more science fiction and YA fantasy than horror), seemed appropriate for the month of October.

Of the three stories, “Echoes” is the oldest , and as a result it has the most interesting history – highlights of which I’d like to share with you during this week’s installments of Teaching Visions.

Let's begin with some background.

My first office was in my family’s printing business, a long narrow shop with wood floors and a high tin ceiling. The office was in the pressroom. No partitions. Just a desk sitting in the shadow of the printing press. The shop opened at eight, but the sleepy town didn’t get moving until midmorning, and I could usually plan on getting in two uninterrupted hours of writing if I got to work on time, even more if I got there early, which I often did when the writing was going well. In that print shop I learned the importance of developing a writing routine. The fact that the office boasted a good size desk, plenty of paper, ample filing space, and an IBM Correcting Selectric II (this was the late 1970s) didn’t hurt, either. Best of all, since I had yet to sell a single word of fiction, the steady (albeit low paying) work as a print-room manager paid the bills while I learned to write salable fiction.

At first the stories came back, some with form rejections, others with personal notes. I taped all of these to the wall beside the typewriter. They were signs of progress, things to point to when people asked what I was doing in the morning when the press was silent.

The personal notes told me to keep at it, and I did, falling into a steady pace that finally paid off with a sale to Elinor Mavor at Amazing Stories (who was then publishing fantasy and horror as well as science fiction). Elinor also bought my next three stories, the last of which was later optioned for film. The film was never made, but the option check convinced me that writing could actually pay better than printing….

When Amazing rejected my fifth story, I sent it to a magazine that was just then getting underway. The magazine was Twilight Zone, edited by T.E.D. Klein, and the story was “Mrs. Halfbooger’s Basement,” a twisted little horror yarn that Publishers Weekly called “the realization of every child’s fears.” Later that year it sold again to Karl Edward Wagner for Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series XI.

Success led to dedication, and I grew reclusive, forgoing offers to spend time with friends and family in favor of spending long hours at the typewriter. And so it was that, when my grandmother invited me to dinner on a long ago April afternoon, my first inclination was to say, “Thanks, but no.” I had stories to write.

I don’t remember what made me change my mind, but I’m glad I did, for that night over dinner my grandmother planted the seed for a little story that has since taking on a life of its own, having been reprinted and adapted nearly a dozen times over the past quarter century.

Tomorrow, I’ll to tell you what happened at that dinner and how it led to the creation of a successful story.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Infernal Dreams: Part 3


Before moving on to a discussion of one of the strangest scenes in Gioseppe de Liguoro's L'Inferno, I'd like to invite any of you who are in driving distance of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to drop by the Barnes and Noble superstore at 421 Arena Hub Plaza for their annual Halloween Horror Gathering. I'll be there this Saturday signing copies of Veins and Visions, sharing the spotlight with Bram Stoker Award Winner Lisa Mannetti and others. The fun starts at 2:00 PM. See you there!

I'd also like to direct your attention to some excellent comments posted to this site by Teaching Visions reader A. Alford, who reminds me that F&SF has recently run a second-person narrative titled "You are Such a One" by Nancy Springer. The same issue also contains Sean McMullen's terrific novelette "The Art of the Dragon." I'd like to try commenting on both stories sometime soon -- possibly as early as next week. And yes, that issue also contains my novelette "The Others," which is one of the stories in Visions.

More on those stories later, but I've made you wait long enough for that discussion of what may well be one of the strangest sequences in L'Inferno, a scene depicting Dante’s encounter with heretic Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti.

The episode begins with a long shot of a burning field. No trick photography here. The flames are real, lighting the foreground as they spread across the stage.

Dante and Virgil enter, walking among the flames until the glowing figure of Cavalcante rises from an open tomb in the center of the stage. The shot is alarming in a number of ways, partly for its dramatic design, but also for the real danger that the actors and crew obviously faced while filming it. Consider: Dante and Virgil are dressed in ankle-length robes, hems swaying inches from the flames. Then the scene cuts to one of the film’s few close shots. Dante, Virgil, and Cavalcante filling the foreground as flames and smoke rage behind them. Watch closely, and you’ll see streams of lighter fluid splashing over the stage right behind the actors. Such are the pyrotechnic effects of early cinema – stagehands with buckets of combustible chemicals standing out of frame, feeding real fires while robed actors converse with a nearly naked man in a glowing pit. It’s a harrowing tableau.

The film also features some moderately successful attempts at optical fades, split screens, and forced perspectives. None of the effects are quite as good as those employed by Georges Méliès during the same period, but they are fascinating nonetheless.

Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a peek at the vistas of hell, you may be better served by reading Dante than by watching Eye 4 Films’ restoration of L’Inferno. And if you’d like to score that reading experience, you might consider loading your audio device with Tangerine Dream’s Sorcerer tracks.

Sometimes the best classics are the ones that play in the cinema of the mind.

Or so I thought when I first viewed the film and discussed it for the journal Dissections. But the intriguing thing about art is the way it seems to change with repeated viewings. Of course, it's not the art that changes. It's the viewer, and in the past few months I find I have developed an appreciation for both the film and its new musical score. I had expected the magic of Georges Méliès and the driving beats of the Tangerine Dream. But now, I suppose, with those expectations behind me, I can appreciate Snapper's repackaging of Liguoro's early film for what it is, a sublime, meditative look back at an early feature film that attempted to capture the dark wonder of Dante's poem. And despite the music's soft tones and lyrics that fall short of the power of Dante's poetry, the DVD is worth a rental if not a purchase. And if you teach Dante (as I do) you might consider sharing a few sections with your students. It'll make for some good conversation.

That's it for now. Until next week, share the vision!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Infernal Dreams: Part 2


I'm back from The Kiski School, where I presented Visions and Soundscapes at the campus theatre. The event was well attended, and I got the chance to talk to attendees at the book signing that followed. It was fun but exhausting.

Yesterday, we were reflecting on the restored release of Giuseppe de Liguoro's film L'Inferno (1911). If you haven't read that post, you might drop down to Infernal Dreams: Part 1 before continuing. Take your time. I'll be here when you get back.

For those of you who've read Part 1, the adventure continues:

As much as I admire Tangerine Dream’s instrumentals, I have never been a fan of their lyrics, and so I felt a sense of disappointment when the overture “Before the Closing of the Day” gave way to “Spirit of Virgil” – a song that falls considerably short of the power of Dante’s poetry.

Consider, for example, the opening lines of Dante’s Comedy. Here they are in the original Italian:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

And here are the same lines translated by John Ciardi:

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road [...] to find myself
alone in a dark wood. How shall I say

what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
so rank, so arduous a wilderness!

Its very memory gives shape to fear.

Note the tension, vivid detail, and active constructions. Now here, as best as I can decipher them, are the corresponding lyrics from “Spirit of Virgil”:

One Good Friday […]
I got lost in a dark wood.
I was wondering
how I’d managed
To stray from
the straight path.
The night was full of peril.

The ellipsis in the first line is for a phrase that I simply cannot make out. The singer, long-time Tangerine Dream collaborator Jayney Klimek, has a beautiful voice, but it’s sometimes difficult to understand. No matter. The discernible words are enough to demonstrate that the lyrics represent a step down from the original poetry. The details are the same, but the tension is gone. And such is the fate of the rest of the score.

As for the film itself, Giuseppe de Liguoro’s adaptation is generally true to the poem’s structure. It features a series of scenes, each depicting Dante and Virgil descending through the regions of hell. Most scenes open as static shots, framed in the standard 4:3 ratio of early films. We see a region of hell. Dante and Virgil enter from one side, look around, gesticulate, and exit.

Some of the sets are undressed landscapes, with the hills and forests of Italy serving as the Dark Wood of Error, the slope of Mount Joy, and the banks of the rivers Acheron and Styx. Others feature rocky backdrops and foreground fires. These are the most interesting.

One of the strangest sequences depicts Dante’s encounter with heretic Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti. How strange? We'll consider that tomorrow.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Infernal Dreams: Part 1


I'm making an early start today, heading out to the PAISTA Conference in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania, for a 8:45 presentation of Visions and Soundscapes, the multimedia reading of selections of Visions and Veins, set to the music of Veins: The Soundtrack. If you're planning to attend the event, I'll look forward to seeing you at the presentation. After the reading, bookseller Michaels Associates will have plenty of copies of the books in the vendors room. Hope to see you there as well.

Last week I announced my intentions to offer some thoughts on Dante's Inferno and Tangerine Dream. I've been covering the former in my literature classes for over 20 years now, and the latter has figured prominently in my writing-session playlists over the years. Indeed, many of the stories in Visions were composed while listening to the synth melodies of Germany's premier new-age band.

Last year, I wrote a short piece on an interesting intersection between Dante and TD for the British literary journal Dissections, published by Dr. Gina Wisker at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. The focus of the essay was the Tangerine-Dream scored release of a 1911 film version of Dante's Inferno. At the time, I was a bit disappointed with both the film and the TD score, but my views have mellowed a bit over the past few months, and this morning seems like a good time to revisit my thoughts on this interesting melding of 14th century poetry, early film, and post-modern rock.

This is how that previous essay began.

I’ve been a fan of Tangerine Dream ever since they did the score for William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), the film that introduced the band to people who knew nothing of the German experimental music scene of the 1960s and 70s. Other film work followed: Thief (1981), The Keep (1983), Firestarter (1984), and Legend (1986). Each score is remarkable, with the best (Sorcerer and Thief) lending a sense of dark, pulsing urgency to the action.

In 2006, Snapper Music released a DVD version of a newly scored restoration of Giuseppe de Liguoro’s L’Inferno (1911) – an early film that dramatizes Dante’s journey through the nine circles, three rounds, and ten bolge of a medieval hell. Reputed to be the first Italian feature film, L’Inferno became an early cinematic blockbuster in the US, but it soon suffered the fate of many early films, circulating in increasingly shortened versions before finally descending into archival limbo, where it remained until Eye 4 Films assembled a full-length restoration augmented with a score by Tangerine Dream. A tantalizing package, indeed!

The DVD opens with a track titled “Before the Closing of the Day,” an overture featuring electronic keyboard and a swirl of wordless chants. The sound is classic Tangerine Dream, reminiscent of the slow preludes that distinguish some of what I consider the band’s most memorable CD tracks: “Little Blond in the Park of Attractions” from Tyranny of Beauty or “Too Hot for My Chincilla” from Lilly on the Beach. Such openings often precede a torrent of pulsing bass and percussion, and L’Inferno’s score seems, at first, to work in similar fashion, with an encroaching timpani beat rising just as the restoration’s main title card appears. So far so good.

In the two minutes that come between the title card and the actual start of the film, the viewer is treated to a series of images designed to build anticipation for what is to follow. The first is a shot of the black-clad Dante following a white-robed Virgil. The image quality is what you would expect from a 100-year-old film: grainy, scratched, and framed without the aesthetic sense that would develop in the century after the film’s creation. Nevertheless, the viewer may be intrigued by how much the image of Dante (played here by Salvatore Papa) resembles the author’s portrayal in the well-known etchings of Gustave Doré.

More Doré-inspired images follow: the spirit of Beatrice Portinari standing in a heavenly garden, a mass of tormented souls bathing in a river of filth, the ferryman Charon steering toward shore, hoarders and wasters rolling sacks of money along a rocky ledge, the lovers Paolo and Francesca suspended in tempestual winds. Though scratched and faded, the images are enticingly surreal, and the music builds nicely as they appear and fade. But then the film begins.

The first shot is a degraded intertitle, white letters superimposed over a Doré landscape. The text reads:

"The ‘Divine Comedy’ of Dante was inspired by a little girl, only nine years of age, when her beauty first impressed the poet. Beatrice died at the age of twenty-four, and Dante’s plan to immortalize her resulted in one of the most stupendous achievements of human genius – the Inferno."

The text, apparently an attempt to infuse love-interest into a film about two men walking through hell, is not exactly accurate. Beatrice Portinari is indeed a character in the Divine Comedy, but she has barely a cameo in L’Inferno. In truth, the first book of Dante’s Comedy seems to have been inspired more by cruel politics than unrequited love. Nevertheless, I probably would have forgotten the overstatement if the music had swept me away when the action began. Alas, it didn’t. Instead, the score suddenly gave way to a lilting vocal performance.

Tomorrow, we'll consider what happens when the singing begins.

For now, I'm off to PAISTA. Share the vision!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Looking Back


We're two weeks into this blog, and it seems like a good time to look back at the original plan as stated in my first post:

I hope to use the stories in Visions as departure points for the discussion of writing, science fiction, fantasy, and whatever else the stories bring to mind. Along the way I hope to pass along some strategies for young writers, lessons for writing instructors, and perhaps a few reviews of contemporary works that have proven useful in lectures over the years.

So far we’ve considered the second-person voice of "Aberrations," looked at a lesson involving "Echoes," and discussed a contemporary approach to live readings that can be employed by writers or teachers looking to enhance live performances of the written word -- all of which make me glad that I hedged my bets with that line in the first blog about “whatever else the stories bring to mind.”

Such broad intentions will give me the chance to touch on a variety of topics in the coming weeks, and along the way I hope to get a sense of what readers find most useful and what they would like to see more of. To that end, I would like to use some of these Wednesday postings to consider reader responses.

One reader writes:

LOVE the blog! Great concept and theme...lovely appearance...awesomely rich content. I just can't seem to get my comments to 'stick' when I click on 'post' (I suspect it's my web browser/cookie blocker's fault). Your blog is a sort of living breathing 'teacher's guide' -- I dig it!

The teacher’s guide element is certainly something I had in mind at the outset. Actually, the plan for posting early in the week (Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays) is to give teachers and workshop leaders things to consider while planning their week's activities.

As for comments that won't "stick," I should point out that other readers have reported trouble posting comments. I hope that all those who do will consider dropping me an email.

Reader Michael Brendan was able to post, and I’m delighted to hear that he is going to be a regular follower of Teaching Visions. Michael is a rising star in the SF field. He’s a graduate of the Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill University and a darn fine writer. You can follow his reviews at Associated Content. I’m delighted to have him as a reader.

Also on board in the followers box are W. H. Horner and Charles Prepolec. If you get a chance, be sure to check out W. H. Horner’s thoughtful comments on the publishing industry at his blog Art .'. Design. And while you're at it, take a few more minutes and drop by Charles Prepolec’s newly launched Sherlock Holmes News, which I will be following regularly in the days to come.

Another blog that I am following is Michael A. Arnzen's long-running and wonderfully informative Pedablogue. I encourage all of you who may be interested in discussions of “the scholarship of teaching” to check out his site.

Overall, it seems that the members of TV’s audience (by which I mean the followers of Teaching Visions) are as eclectic as my original design.

I’ll return next week with further reflections on music and story with a consideration of a recently restored print of L’Inferno (1911), scored by the music of Tangerine Dream. Dante’s Inferno is on my syllabus for this semester, and Tangerine Dream is a band that I listened to while composing many of the stories in Visions. Thus, the film and its new score seem like good material for our next discussion.

Until then, enjoy the links above . . . and share the vision.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Twenty-First Century Scop: Part 2


The technology needed for providing musical scores for live readings is as easy to carry as it is to set up and use. Naturally, nothing beats bringing along a guitar or keyboard player. If you’ve got a best friend or spouse who’s a musician, you’re all set. But perhaps you like the simplicity of working alone (and keeping the spotlight to yourself). In that case, there’s an easy alternative.

First, you need to select some music, preferably tunes that your listeners haven’t heard before. Back in the days when the big labels were regulating the flow of recorded content, you might have had a tough time finding something fresh and unfamiliar. But today, with so many artists making music available online, and with the explosion of digital music suppliers such as iTunes and DigStation, the task is relatively easy.

The music you select does not need to play through your entire reading, a good thing to keep in mind if you plan on presenting works longer than poems or flash fiction. Of course, having music start and stop during your reading means you need an easy way to control the sound. To do that, I recommend using a laptop and a handheld remote.

To queue your sound, store the digital recordings on your laptop and link them to a Power Point presentation. The Power Points slides are for you, not the audience. I like to keep these slides simple, displaying the name of the story that I'm reading and the piece of music that’s playing. I also find it’s helpful to include a note that identifies the next slide in the sequence. I do not recommend placing the actual text of the story you are reading on the Power Point Slide. Rather than reading from the screen, I rely on a handheld book. Very traditional. Think of it as product placement.

Naturally, it’s a good idea to rehearse with this new setup before taking it on the road. In addition to getting used to working the remote and timing your delivery to the music, you will want to practice setting up the few bits of hardware involved.

And how much hardware is required?

Everything you need can be carried over one shoulder. Namely, you will need a copy of the book you’ll be reading, a laptop, a handheld remote, and a set of speakers. That’s it.

I prefer USB speakers, which are perfect for small spaces (coffeehouses and bookstores). They draw their power directly from the computer, so you don’t need to worry about being close to an outlet. You can even (as I have done a number of times) perform in a space that has no power, such as public parks and courtyards. The speakers I use are thin enough to carry in the side pocket of my laptop case, and they put out a surprisingly good sound. For larger spaces (or for gigs when I want the sound quality to be the best it can be) I use a Roland amplifier, which produces professional quality sound in a relatively portable system. (It comes with an over-the-shoulder carrying bag, but it’s a lot heavier than those USB speakers).

Of course, the best spaces are auditoriums where the AV technology is already in place (and where a resident tech person is on hand to hook you up). That’s the setup I’ll be using next Monday when I present Visions and Soundscapes at PAISTA. As much as possible, those are the spaces I like to work in. When I do those shows, I employ projected images as well.

When all goes well (and let’s face it, with technology there’s always an adventure waiting to happen) the results are worth the effort. If you’d like to hear what I’m taking about but aren’t planning to be at the Kiski School next Monday, you might pick up a copy of Veins: the Soundtrack, which includes two of the Visions and Soundscape readings as bonus tracks. The CD also contains original instrumental tracks that I recorded with my band last summer, tunes that I composed for reading with my novel Veins, but which you might find useful in scoring your own readings. All the tracks are available for immediate download at DigStation.

Finally, for the frugally minded, you might check out an online podcast of my story “Shooting Evil” from Ash-Tree Press.

Until tomorrow, enjoy the stories . . . and share the vision.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Twenty-First Century Scop: Part 1


Back in the days before printed books, when the live reading was the primary means of getting literature to the public, storytellers appreciated the connection between music and narrative. They knew that delivering a story was more than just reciting words, but today that seems to have been forgotten.

Have you attended a reading lately? Did the author bring a backup band? Keyboard? Boombox? Probably not. It’s easier to just bring a book.

I remember seeing Lawrence Ferlinghetti at a performance sponsored by the now defunct (and sorely missed) International Poetry Forum. It was April 3, 1968, and Ferlinghetti was reading from his newly released collection A Coney Island of the Mind. I was young and impressionable, studying the performance, learning from the master. For an hour it was just Ferlinghetti and his voice, but then, for his final piece, he produced a tape player, adjusted the podium microphone so that it hung midway between his face and the machine, and hit play. Then – in the tradition of the Anglo-Saxon scop – he read "Moscow in the Wilderness, Segovia in the Snow" while guitar music played beneath his words.

In the years that followed, I heard others do the same. Most notably Patti Smith, who gave spoken word performances accompanied by guitarist Lenny Kaye in the early 70s, and four-time Bram Stoker Award winner Michael A. Arnzen, who released AudioVile, a CD featuring some of his stories read to original music, in 2007. But live meldings of music and spoken word remain relatively rare, even though modern technology makes it easier than ever to bring quality sound to a reading. Indeed, full multi-media accompaniment – laptop, PA, projector, and screen – can fit easily into the backseat of a Cobalt.

Last year, as Fantasist Enterprises was preparing to debut my novel Veins at GenCon, I began working on a studio CD of music inspired by the novel. Part of the impetus for the project was a CD that Poe had produced based on Mark Z. Danielewski's novel House of Leaves. But also in the back of my mind was that long ago performance by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. If all went well, I figured the new music might enable me to score live readings from the book.

The resulting CD, Veins: the Soundtrack, was released by Fantasist earlier this year, and this summer I took music and book on the road, giving readings at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts, Confluence, GenCon, and Context. Next week I will be reading at PAISTA, a gathering of educators at the Kiski School in western Pennsylvania.

Naturally, writers needn’t produce original CDs in order to score their readings. There’s a lot of music out there. More than ever before. And the technology needed to arrange and edit a playlist is probably already on the computer you are using to read this blog.

This week, I’d like to talk about bringing live readings back to their roots, how writers might consider augmenting their spoken-word performances, and how writing instructors might help train a new generation of scops by encouraging students to use the technology at their fingertips to aid in the presentation of their written works.

We'll pick up right here tomorrow.

Until then, share the vision!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Through Fiction's Fourth Wall: Part 2


Yesterday I shared some of the inspiration behind the second-person narration in "Aberrations," the lead story in Visions: Short Fantasy and SF.

Second-person, present-tense narration is underused in fiction for some practical reasons that we can get into later, but it does lend a certain immediacy to a narrative, and it has made for some interesting results when I've asked my students to give it a try.

When introducing students to the second-person, I start by sharing a conventional piece of first- or third-person fiction. I prefer short-short stories for this activity, since they allow the class to focus on a complete work rather than an excerpt.

In the past I've had success using flash fiction from 365 Scary Stories and 100 Great Fantasy Short-Short Stories. (Naturally, you can also use some of the short-short stories in Visions, two of which also appear in those aforementioned anthologies). Your local librarian or bookseller will help you find plenty of other sources. Don’t have quick access to either? Then try the digital archives of the flash-fiction magazine The Vestal Review, which has just published its 36th issue. Your students will get a real kick out of the stories there.

Once you have found a workable story, you should contact the author and get permission to use the work in your classroom or workshop. Making contact shouldn't be hard in this day of author websites and email, and most writers are flattered to get such requests. Beyond that, they are likely to welcome the opportunity to reach a new group of readers. Trust me on this. Try it, and let me know if I'm wrong.

I also make a point of letting the students know that the author has granted permission to use the story in the activity. It makes for a sense of connection with the literary world.

Although I prefer to share such models by projecting them onto my classroom's SmartBoard, photocopied handouts can work, too. (Just be sure to get those handouts back at the end of the lesson, unless your arrangement with the author has included letting everyone keep a copy.) After reading and discussing the story, you and the class can begin going through it line by line, adjusting nouns, pronouns, and verbs as needed. With advanced classes, this process leads to discussions about the ways in which the narrative quickly changes tone. With beginning writers, it also opens discussions on the connections between pronouns and verbs.

Here's an example of what you'll notice. The text is from the opening of my short-short story "Echoes," (Twilight Zone, Feb. 1983, reprinted in Visions: Short Fantasy and SF):

Marie stood in the kitchen, staring at the magnetic birds on the refrigerator door, and after a while Billy yelled in from the living room to tell her that Paul wanted some milk.

She didn’t answer.

Paul had been dead for three months.

Now here it is again in present tense, second person:

You stand in the kitchen, staring at the magnetic birds on the refrigerator door, and after a while Billy yells in from the living room to tell you that Paul wants some milk.

You don’t answer.

Paul has been dead for three months.

See the difference? The original strikes me as quiet and haunting. The second version seems more immediate, almost desperate. It's certainly the beginning of a very different kind of story.

The activity has been a good way to help students explore a seldom used narrative voice. Your mileage may very, but if you take this one for a spin, let me know how it goes. Oh yes, and if you want to use "Echoes," just ask.

I'll be back next week with some thoughts on multimedia storytelling.

Until then, share the vision!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Through Fiction's Fourth Wall: Part 1

09.29.09: V-Day

This is it! The day of the official release of Visions. Don't have a copy yet? Go ahead and get one. I'll be here when you get back.

All right. Now let's get to it.

Yesterday I touched on the private nature of writing. Let’s consider it again, this time as it relates to both writer and reader.

A writer composes a story in solitude for a reader who reads the work alone. Between the two lies a world of characters who have no awareness of either the reader or writer. But what happens when the writer’s voice shifts to second person, when the reader becomes a character in that previously self-contained world of fiction?

I remember when I first realized the potential of that mode of storytelling. It was September 16, 1963, the night that the science-fiction program The Outer Limits premiered on ABC. I sat before the set, waiting for the show to begin, when suddenly the screen went dark. A moment later, the control voice began, speaking directly to me through the 24-inch Magnavox.

There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture […]. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to the outer limits.

It was, of course, a ripoff of a second-person intro that had been airing on CBS since 1959 -- Rod Serling's opening for The Twilight Zone -- although I'm not sure I was aware of that at the time.

You're traveling through another dimension -- a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's a signpost up ahead: your next stop: the Twilight Zone!

Although neither show sustained the second-person narrative beyond the introductions (unless we count the few lines at the end of each episode), both impressed me enough to start experimenting with second-person, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure type stories.

Eventually, I discovered fully developed second-person narratives in books and magazines, perhaps the most successful of which was Bob Leman's “Instructions” (F&SF September 1984, and currently available as a chapbook from Tachyon Publications). Incredibly, Leman sustains the control voice through an entire 6,000 word story. Here's how it begins:

This is the only notice you will receive.
You will follow the instructions set out below.

1. Dress warmly and leave your house. Do not tell your family you are leaving. Do not talk to them at all.
Do not listen if they talk to you.
Dress warmly and leave the house.

2. Proceed at a brisk clip to the center of town.
The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, and “Instructions” were very much on my mind when I wrote “Aberrations,” the piece of second-person flash fiction that opens Visions, and writing that story (and noting the response that it gets when I read it live) started me thinking of a number of fiction-writing exercised to help break the ice and prime the pump in writing classes and workshops.

In tomorrow's installment, I'll share with you one of those lessons.

Until then, share the vision!

Monday, September 28, 2009

SF, Fantasy, and Teaching Visions


When I started writing back in the ages of manual typewriters and carbon paper, I found that I enjoyed the private nature of the work. I wrote my first stories in silent obscurity, and even when they sold to the likes of Twilight Zone, Amazing Stories, and Year’s Best Horror, I regarded writing as a private affair. I had never attended a workshop, didn’t belong to a writing group, and (it being the early 1980s) lived in a world devoid of things like tweets, texting, and blogs -- modes of communication that today put writers in close and constant contact with readers.

My perception of writing privacy changed when I was hired to teach freshman composition at a large university. “You might want to share your stories with your students,” the English chair told me. “They might like knowing they’re learning from a published writer.”

I took his advice, and soon found myself engaging in conversations with some fairly opinionated undergrads, some of whom were genuinely interested in learning how a person went about selling fiction to the magazines. I told them what I knew, and two years later I moved from covering Freshman Comp to teaching upper-division classes in Fiction Writing and Science Fiction.

Other public gigs followed: library readings, high-school workshops, book-group talks. Then came a full-time position with the Senior School English Department at Sewickley Academy, where I have been for the past twenty years, and a resident position in the Writing Popular Fiction Program at Seton Hill University, with which I have been associated since 2002. In short, writing hasn’t been private for a long time, and yet, unlike many of my peers, I have resisted cultivating a presence in that digital fishbowl provided by the Internet.

Enter Will Horner at Fantasist Enterprises.

After purchasing my novel Veins in 2008, Will expressed interest in putting out a collection of some of my stories. The result is Visions: Short Fantasy and SF, which will be officially released tomorrow, September 29. (And which received good advance notice in the August 3 issue of Publishers Weekly.)

As we were assembling the book, it occurred to me that the stories (which included my first sale to Amazing Stories as well as my most recent novelettes for F&SF) had something to say about the development of a writer. Each story represented a series of lessons learned, many of them the same lessons that I strive to pass along to my students. Although some of these lessons are shared in the introductions to the stories in Visions, as well as in the book's retrospective afterword, I felt, as I looked over the final manuscript, that I had much more to say.

Hence this blog.

In future installments, I hope to use the stories in Visions as departure points for the discussion of writing, science fiction, fantasy, and whatever else the stories bring to mind. Along the way I hope to pass along some strategies for young writers, lessons for writing instructors, and perhaps a few reviews of contemporary works that have proven useful in workshops and lectures over the years. In any event, I hope you will come back, read what you find here, and offer feedback.

Because I believe in the benefits of a routine, I’ll plan to produce three posts a week, one each Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. We’ll resume tomorrow, on the day of the official release of Visions, with some musings on second-person narration.

Until then, share the vision.