Memorial Day – Hiatus Monday

It is, again, Hiatus Monday.  That means no (real) new post today.

It’s also Memorial Day (at least it is here in the U.S.; I’m not sure whether this is celebrated elsewhere in the same way), so that means a nice day off of work.

A day to get some work done on homework and figuring out my career plans, for me.

Be back tomorrow for another “Weekend Assignment”…

Writing Quote: Professional Writing

I actually found this quote first on the blog of fellow writer-in-training Juanita McConnachie, aka Writer’s Block NZ.  So I dug into the internet to find out a little more about it.  It’s a delightful little quote, one that offers a tidbit of hope out to those of us who are still amateurs on the periphery of the world of writing:

A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.

~Richard Bach

Of course, there’s truth in there, logically.  Nobody who calls him- or her-self a writer started that way by getting paid for it – and that’s what we generally mean by “professional writer”.  We all spend time being amateurs, first – people who hone their craft because they love writing.  Some of us amateurs will go on to a “professional” career.

Where the quote misses the mark, perhaps, is in suggesting that the mere act of “not giving up” is sufficient to achieving professional status.  There will be amateurs who also persist, and despite their persistence never attain to professional status.  That’s a sad truth, but it’s still the truth.  That sad amateur who persists and fails – it could be me!  Time alone will tell that story.

(There will also be amateurs who persist in writing but who have no overwhelming desire to attain to a professional status.  I’m not sure if these count as those who did not “give  up” or what.)

But there are things amateurs can do to even the odds a little.  They can improve their craft and write better, more brilliant prose, for one.  There are probably other things that I, as an amateur, don’t yet really know.

Still, I will persist.

Because I believe in my prose, and because I love writing.

Happy writing.

Hiatus Saturday

Today is another in my temporary Blog Hiatus days.  Naturally, I’ll be back tomorrow with another in my “Writing Quote” series, in which I dredge the internet in search of quotes by writers or about writing, and muse on them for a minutes.

To satiate your blog-reading desires for today, perhaps you should take a look at some past entries in my Writing Quotes series.

Another Story: Shopping for Snow

I’m glad I was able to respond to this week’s Author Aerobics challenge, and this is the first truly short bit that I’m sure qualifies as Flash Fiction.  It’s the shortest piece I’ve put up on this site so far, clocking in at about 580 words.  So, this week’s challenge was:

Write a scene 1000 words or less that shows at least two character who posses very different frames of reference, for example, a mother talking to a child, or a physics teacher talking to a student. This week’s theme? “Apples”

And, as I packed my lunch for work one day this week, pulling an apple from the fruit crisper in the fridge, the inspiration for this story struck me.  It’s a familiar tale, perhaps, but the scene played out amusingly in my mind.  I call it:

Shopping for Snow

By: Stephen Watkins

“Apples!  Poison Apples!  Get your fresh-picked Poison Apples!”  The hawker’s voice rose above the din of the marketplace, catching the ear of Queen Lucrezia.  She stopped to admire the hawker’s wares, stacks of apples of more than a dozen varieties.  Bright red and beautiful, rosy with golden accents, and burnished  green.  She reached out a delicate, long-fingered hand, but stopped short of touching the apples.  Instead, she reached up to tug the hood of her disguise lower over face.  Lucrezia often went about in the marketplace, shopping for gifts for her stepdaughter.  In disguise, of course.  It wouldn’t do for the Queen to be caught mingling with the commoners.

“You like my poison apples, lady?” 

Lucrezia didn’t answer immediately.  “How is it that you sell poison apples in the market?”

“Easy.  I get poison apples from the apple farm, I bring ‘em here and sell ‘em.”

“But, surely you can’t have many customers for poison apples.”

The hawker shrugged.  “I make a living.”

“But… Poison apples?  Why would someone buy a poison apple?”

“Look lady, I’m sure I don’t know what you’d do with a poison apple.  None of my business.  But you want poison apples, I got poison apples.  Otherwise, make room.  I’ve got other customers.”

Lucrezia paused for a moment, about to leave, but then decided to entertain the hawker a little longer.  “Tell me about your apples, sir.”

“Well, I’ve got a find selection here today.  I’m sure your ladyship would fancy a nice Red Delicious.  A single bite is enough to kill a man.”

“Red Delicious?  In my experience, they are anything but delicious.”

“A lady of taste?  These Granny Smiths’ll make you grow old so fast your head’ll spin.  Before you know it, there’s nothing left but dust ‘n bones.”

“But doesn’t a green apple simply scream poison?  Do you have anything a little more… subtle?”

“Ahh, you want the real fine stuff.  You’re in luck, your ladyship.  I’ve got a fine assortment of Rome Beauties and Pink Ladies.  Rome Beauties drive you barking drooling mad, and Pink Ladies drop you right in a coma so deep you’ll never wake up!  These are the best quality poison apples on the market!”

Lucrezia regarded the Rome Beauties and Pink Ladies.  They were fine looking apples.  The Beauties were a luscious red, not so deep as the Red Delicious, spotted with pink and golden flecks.  The Pink Ladies were the color of the morning sky, gentle and warm.

“Is there any cure for the poison on these apples?” she inquired.

The hawker drew himself up, looking insulted.  “Cure?  Cure?  What do I look like to you?  You come here, insulting my wares?  I got paying customers waiting.  I got no time for insults.”

“My apologies, good merchant.  I’m merely a careful consumer.  You can understand, I’m sure, that not every merchant is so conscientious as yourself.  I’m afraid that I’ve spent good coin on faulty products and shoddy workmanship in the past, and I’ve grown wary.”

“Look, lady, these are the best quality poison apples anywhere in the whole kingdom.  You can’t cure poison on apples like these.  I personally guarantee it!”

“How much are they, then?”

“For you, your ladyship, my best price.  Three crowns for a dozen, and my personal money-back guarantee!   These apples’ll poison a Sanabrian Giant, or else you’ll get your money back and three free apples for your trouble.”

Lucrezia smiled.  “Excellent.  I’ll take a dozen.”

The End.

(For other short shorts by yours truly, check out the links on my “Stories and Scribblings” page.)

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The Conquest of Fantasy and Speculative Fiction

So, a comment on my rather vigorous (or at least wordy) defense of fantasy, last week, prompted me to explore a hunch and dig up some box-office numbers, as an example of the triumph of Speculative Fiction, in general, and the Fantasy genre, in particular, in mainstream pop culture.  I thought I’d share the results of my “research” here.

The raw data I found at the website Box Office Mojo, which maintains an extensive database of box office receipts.  Specifically, I looked at the Overall Worldwide Box Office and the Overall Adjusted for Inflation Box Office.  (Actually, I got my original “Overall Worldwide” numbers from IMDB.com, which got them from Box Office Mojo, but there’s a slight discrepancy in their figures.)

I divided movies into several categories.  These categories are:

Mainstream: A Catch-all category for comedies, thrillers, dramas, documentaries, musicals, and other films set in a contemporary world, or the real-world, with no real “speculative elements”, most notably “Titanic”, “Gone with the Wind”, etc.

Science Fiction: Anything to do with aliens, spaceships, or futuristic science – basically anything you’d normally classify as Science Fiction, with the exception of “Star Wars” (which I classified separately below).

Fantasy: Any “pure”-bread fantasy, including animated films (like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”) that include fantasy-based elements such as magic, dragons, and other mythical creatures or anything set in a mythological setting.

Sci-Fantasy: Movies like “Star Wars”, or “Indiana Jones and the Whatever” I classified as Sci-Fantasy, which is kind of a cross-breed of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  They may have science-fiction like elements, and they may have fantasy-like elements such as magic (or the “force”) or may rely heavily on mythical structures.

Super-Hero: Movies about super-heroes, whether based on comic books or not, are a special and categorically large sub-group of Sci-Fantasy.

Family Animated: Animated family movies whose only “speculative” premise is that animals or toys can talk to each other, or something similar like that, such as “The Lion King” or “Bambi”, or “Finding Nemo”.  I struggled with whether to categorize “Up” here or not… ultimately I did, but I could easily have classified it elsewhere.  Good Family Animated films are, in my opinion, a type of Speculative Fiction, but others will disagree.

Romantic Fantasy: Because I needed a place to put the “Twilight” sequel, and I wasn’t sure it counted as “Fantasy” per se.  Maybe it does…

Horror: You know, the kind of movie where something (something that usually doesn’t exist) is out to kill you, frequently using horrible Science-fictiony or Fantasy powers to do it.  (This can be considered separate from stalker/slasher pics where the killer is an ordinary human – that’s mainstream.)

Other Speculative: Movies that have a clearly “speculative fiction” premise but which are hard to categorize as any of the other speculative genres – stuff like “The Da Vinci Code”.  It’s still speculative fiction, but what kind, precisely, I’m not sure.

Other: Because I had no idea how to classify “The Passion of the Christ”.

So, you can see the lists of movies by following the link to Box Office Mojo.  What I’ll share here are the results after my classifications.  I had to narrow my field to the top 50 movies, because I didn’t have time to look at any more than that. 

Looking only at raw Box Office, Fantasy comes out the clear winner.  Looking only at the top 25 movies, 12 of them are fantasy movies – nearly half!  And those twelve movies brought in $11 BILLION.  Science Fiction films brought in another $4.5 Billion, and Super Hero and Sci-Fantasy movies another $6 Billion.  In the top 25 movies, there is only ONE mainstream movie, totalling $1.8 Billion, and that was “Titanic”.  At this point, I was curious, so I expanded my search to the top 50 movies.

Of the top 50 movies, 39 are some variety of Speculative Fiction (or, including the Family Animated segment, 46 movies).  Of these, Fantasy movies are still the largest segments, accounting for 17 of the top-50 movies and $15 Billion in box-office receipts.  Science Fiction films are the second-largest category, with 7 films taking $7.3 Billion.  All-told, Speculative Fiction movies of one stripe or another account for $34 Billion, out of about $43 Billion from all of the top-50.  (Again, if you count all Family Animated movies, this comes to $39 out of the $43).

But then, I grew concerned (me being an MBA and all) that these numbers weren’t a fair comparison, since yesterday’s movie ticket (and yesterday’s dollar) were worth less in straight dollar terms.  So I turned to the inflation-adjusted figures for the top-50 movies.  Here, we see a very different picture, on two fronts.   The first difference we see is that the largest category shifts from Fantasy to Mainstream movies, with 18 mainstream movies making up $12.8 Billion out of $35 Billion for the top-50 (with “Gone with the Wind” displacing “Avatar” as the top movie, “Avatar” dropping to #14, and “Star Wars” rising as the highest-grossing speculative fiction movie).  Sci-Fantasy becomes the largest speculative fiction category (driven by the Star Wars flicks), followed by Science Fiction movies and then Fantasy movies.  Fantasy is the fourth-largest overall category in inflation-adjusted terms.  However, we still find, even in this examination, that Speculative Fiction movies make up the largest segment of the biggest box-office earners, for 27 of the 50 movies (or 32 of them, counting the Family Animated group).

Another interesting point leaps out at us as well, in these two examinations.  Looking at the unadjusted numbers, we see movie after movie made from 1999 and into the 2000s.  In fact, the oldest movie on this list is “Star Wars”, released in 1977.  From there, we leap to 1982 with “E.T.”, then “Jurassic Park” in ’93, “The Lion King” and “Forrest Gump” in ’94.  We see a small cluster there in the latter-half of the 90s.  But 40 of the top-50 in this list were released in the 2000s.  This comes as no surprise (because movie ticket prices were higher in the 2000s than before).  But we see that nearly all of the top movies in this past decade have been some variety of Speculative Fiction (leaning heavily toward Fantasy).

But if we look at the inflation-adjusted figures, the oldest movie is “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (a Fantasy, FWIW) from 1937, followed by “Gone with the Wind” from 1939.  What’s interesting is that in this list is that we see a cluster of big movies in the 1960s and 1970s, with big box-office movies declining slowly since then.

There’s an interesting trend buried under the surface here.  First, it looks like the Baby Boom generation loved movies ever-so-slightly more than the current generation.  But they didn’t love Speculative Fiction movies quite as much as modern movie-goers.  If you’re making a movie today, however, your best bet is to make a Fantasy movie, or a movie in one of the other Speculative Fiction genres.  Because over time, movie-goer preferences have shifted away from Mainstream movies and toward Speculative Fiction (and Fantasy in particular) in a big way.

At first, when I looked at the Inflation-adjusted numbers, I thought it was a pretty significant counter-argument to my hypothesis that we nerds (i.e. the fans and consumers of speculative fiction) had won the “Culture Wars”.  But when I considered this trend, I realized my hypothesis was still evidently true.  The mainstream of the 1960s and 70s was mostly what it was: the mainstream.  But the mainstream of the 90s and 2000s is a new and different beast.

[Disclaimer: My figures were updated as of May 20, 2010]

An Award-Winning Blog!

I started this blog initially as an outlet for that writerly, creative spirit that I felt I wasn’t exercising as frequently as I’d like.  I was knee-deep in my MBA, and between the demands of work and school, I barely had time to spend with my Dear Wife, let alone write.  But creative writing has always been a part of who I am, a necessary form of self-expression, and the long absence from creative writing was starting to wear on me a bit. 

As I began blogging, I quickly learned of the potential importance a well-maintained blog could have in a long-term writing career, with respect to building and interacting with an audience of readers.  It’s of course by no means a guarantee of success, but has the potential to play a critical factor at a later point.  I’m a long way, yet, from that point.  But, in the meantime, it’s very gratifying to learn that readers are enjoying my blog. 

Sunshine Award

The "Sunshine Award"

 

Yesterday, in fact, I became aware that fellow writer-in-training Barb, who’s blog is called Creative Barbwire, had pegged my blog with the “Sunshine Award” for making her day brighter.  The Award isn’t something that’s given out by some official institution charged with the adjudication of quality on the internet – it’s one given me by a reader (and fellow writer).  And, right now, that’s what’s important to me, with respect to this blog: my readers. 

(With respect to everything else, what’s important to me are my Dear Wife, B.T., finishing my MBA, and finding a good job to provide for my family.) 

In the spirit of the “passing it on” nature of awards like these, I thought I’d take the opportunity to tag another fellow writer-in-training (whom I’ve linked here a few times) T. S. Bazelli’s “Ink Stained“, who started the “Author Aerobics” challenge that I’ve been participating in of recent weeks (and hopefully producing some fun little short stories that you readers have also enjoyed, in the process). 

I hope you all continue to enjoy my humble efforts here (even through the hiatus days).  

Happy writing.

A Sample of “Southern Gothic Horror”

So, I don’t generally do “horror” – it’s my least favorite of the various “Speculative Fiction” genre categories.  I don’t have anything strong against it, but “fear” is not one of the primary emotions missing from my life.  (I’m afraid of lots of things in real life, so I don’t get as much of a thrill from being scared in fantasy life.)  Still, I thought I’d share this one example of my hand at horror.  Here’s the story of what happened.

I wrote this about 5 years ago in response on a forum on the site RPG.net as a writing exercise.  The exercise called for a short (under 1,200 words) vignette to the theme of “Southern Gothic Horror” that would be an introductory story in a hypothetical role-playing game set in the same genre.  So… I live in the South, I figured, even if I’m an “outsider” here, so why not give it a shot.  The result is a story that clocked in at about 1,150 words.  It’s really more like a vaguely Lovecraftian tale set in a Southern Gothic setting, as opposed to a true “Southern Gothic Horror“, but I still think it’s an almost-decent bit of writing.  Almost.  (And there are bits that hint at and allude to themes consistent with the Southern Gothic genre.)  Still, I think it could be cleaned up (and probably lengthened in the process to make it flow better) to make it more serviceable.  Except that I don’t generally do horror in the first place, and so this is likely to sit on the shelf where it stands.  Anyway, without further ado, I present to you:

Dispatch from the Harpston Herald

By: Stephen Watkins

Jeffrey remembered the first time he met the Right Honorable Reverend Lucas Shepherd, almost two years ago.  The Divine Grace Episcopal Church was the center of Harpston, Mississippi, and the Reverend was the holder of the keys.  The descendent of carpetbaggers who’d settled in the Atlanta area shortly after the First World War, Jeffrey Dobson had just graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism when he chanced across an obscure posting on a jobs website looking for a new editor for the Harpston Herald.  He hadn’t expected to land an editor’s job fresh out of college so he was surprised when he got a letter offering him the position.

 Harpston was one of those towns in the proverbial “middle of nowhere” except that, in Harpston’s case, it really was.  It was fifteen minutes to the nearest state road—and anything resembling cell coverage—and another hour to any town sizeable enough to make a blip on the map.  With a population of maybe a thousand, the first man that Jeffrey had met was the Reverend Lucas Shepherd.

 “Harpston, Mis’sippi, Mr. Dobson,” the Reverend had said, “In’t like other towns.  Folks ‘round here are private people, quiet people.  Don’t do nothing ta rouse or rile them, an’ you’ll do just fine.”

 If Jeffrey had just listened to him, maybe he wouldn’t be here, sneaking around the old Marwood Plantation.  Maybe he wouldn’t even still be in Harpston.  Careful for chiggers, Jeffrey pulled at a clump of Spanish moss that was threatening to tangle itself in his hair and crept forward, feeling his hand along the crumbling, moss-covered stone wall that marked the boundaries of Marwood Plantation.  He sniffed to himself, the smell of fresh-turned dirt filling his nostrils.

 Jeffrey thought he’d figured out soon enough what the Reverend had meant that first day.  Few people were willing to talk to him, and it was a tough job filling even a single sheet of newsprint with newsworthy stories.  But Jeffrey grew used to it.  That was, until the sweltering heat of summer set in. 

 It was July last year when he’d first heard it.  A sound, like someone—a little girl, perhaps—screaming in the distance pulled him from a light slumber.  He thought, at first, that maybe it was a hawk hunting its prey.  Except that hawks aren’t generally nocturnal.  He’d asked around town about it the next day, but all he’d got for his efforts were quickly averted eyes, sometimes followed by a mumbled “didn’t hear nothin’”.  It was the sort of attention he’d come to expect.  So, he chalked it up to a fever-dream, and he would’ve been content to leave it at that if he hadn’t heard it again three weeks later.  This time he knew he wasn’t dreaming, because it came earlier in the evening, while he was still working on the layout of the next week’s edition.  Not ten minutes later, he saw through the window a procession of old, dented pickups, an El Camino, and a rusty Olds Delta Royale heading in the direction of the Marwood Plantation.  Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, he didn’t look into it.

 At least not publicly.  Careful not to ask direct questions, quietly he began his own investigation.  He stopped by the small town library and Clerk’s office to go through old records and checked through old file copies of the Herald to see if there was anything about the Marwoods.  He turned up surprisingly few little, except for one tantalizing hint in an article dated from July of 1893.  It told of Robert Lee Marwood, the oldest Marwood son, and Mabel Thomlin, his wife of three days, who were both found dead on the family plot behind Marwood Manor in an apparent double-suicide.  He didn’t know what it meant, but he never mentioned what he found.

 That had been a year ago.  He hadn’t heard the scream again after that.  Until tonight.  Once again it was an unmistakable piercing cry that tore him roughly from his sleep.  The moon was half-full, partially obscured by the branches of heavy-laden oaks towering over his little bungalow so that only a sliver of light streamed in through the tiny window in his room.  He threw off his sweat-soaked sheets and rushed to open the window, hoping to catch some clue as to what was making the sound.  The scream came again, echoing through the fens of live oaks.  It was coming from the east, in the direction of the Marwood Plantation. 

 He raced to the door, and peered out into the gathering gloom.  As expected, a procession of rusted, ill-maintained vehicles materialized in the sweltering mists, pulling off of dirt roads and onto the one-lane paved highway that wound through town.  He waited for the cars to pass before creeping out into the night.  He followed their softly glowing lights as they faded into the summer mist like will-o’-the-wisps.  It was almost an hour later before he happened across the stone wall that marked the boundaries of the Plantation.

 So here he was, slinking through the brush toward the rusted wrought-iron gate where a dirt road drifted its way onto the Marwood Plantation.  He stopped suddenly as he heard voices carrying over the stone wall, whispering loudly, and harshly, to each other.  A breeze played at the iron gate, making it groan.  Jeffrey peeked around the edge of the wall through the gate at two men carrying shovels moving swiftly down a wide avenue lined with live oaks dripping with Spanish moss.  At the end of the avenue lay the decaying remains of Marwood Manor.

 Jeffrey followed them, careful to stay behind the oaks and out of sight.  When they reached the Manor, they cut off to the left to go around behind the old building.  Jeffrey paused at the foot of the old house.  He glanced up at the graying columns, their once-white paint peeling away, supporting the sagging portico.  It was sad to think the descendents of the Marwoods still lived here to this day.  He crept around the side of the house to the old family plot out back.  There was the sound of digging; the argument continued.

 “You know, Clyde, this won’t do.  He needs a fresh body.  This here worm food won’t do no more.” 

 The digging stopped.

 “Well what you want me to do Billy?  Who you gonna get?”

 “I dunno Clyde.  But you heard what he said…”

 Jeffrey didn’t hear the rest of the conversation.  The flat side of a shovel slammed into the back of his head, dropping him to the ground.  The Reverend Lucas Shepherd loomed over his unconscious body.  “Never mind, boys,” He called,  “Problem solved.”  He looked down at the oozing wound in Jeffrey’s head.  “Didn’t I warn you, Mr. Dobson?  Folks round here are quiet folks, private folks.”

The End.

Weekend Assignment: The Play’s the Thing

On this week’s Weekend Assignment, the topic concerns a certain type of live entertainment:

Nowadays we get most of our comedy and drama from television, from movies and even from internet downloads. Perhaps we sometimes forget that all of these evolved from a much older art form, the stage play. Do you ever attend plays, musicals or operas? Why or why not?

Extra Credit: Have you ever seen anything by Shakespeare performed live?

Well, not often – because it’s expensive – but Dear Wife and I do love to get out to see plays and musicals.

In the city where we live there’s this truly awesome little place called Shakespeare’s Tavern.  It’s like a recreation of the Globe in miniature (at least, the styling on the outside gives that appearance; the interior is completely enclosed, and not entirely like the Globe at all) located right in the heart of downtown.  They put on regular plays, mostly Shakespeare but also more modern works along with the occasional Greek tragedy and a few mash-ups, and they have a connected kitchen that serves “Shakespearian” dishes like Cornish Pasties.  All the theater seats are also dining seats.  It’s a pretty fantastic experience, and the cast there do a really good job of acting out the dialog in such a way that the audience can understand the Shakespearian English.

So, the last play that Dear Wife and I saw was “Romeo and Juliet” at the Shakespeare Tavern over Valentine’s Day (actually, it was the day before Valentine’s as I recall).  And several months before that we saw “As You Like It“, which was a pretty funny show.  That was the first time I’d seen that particular play.

Also, last year about this time plus a few months or so, Dear Wife and I saw the on-tour version of “Wicked” which was, quite frankly, awesome.  (If you get a chance to see Wicked near you, I highly recommend it.)

But yeah, that’s about it for live entertainment for us.  Two Shakespeare plays and a musical in the last two years.  We keep hoping to have the time and money but, well, like I said: these things are expensive sometimes.  And with B.T. joining our household ranks, it’s unlikely we’ll be out to see another bit of live entertainment like that for quite some time to come.  It’s a shame, because we love this stuff.  But, of course, we also love B.T.

Hiatus Monday

Today is the first of my designated “Hiatus” breaks from the blog.  There’s class tonight, and I really need to get some stuff done.  I’ll be back tomorrow with this week’s Weekend Assignment.  See you then!

In the meantime, maybe you want to check out the couple of short fiction stories I’ve posted here, recently.