Archive for the ‘Personalities’ Category

Note: The following material ran in a recent issue of the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers quarterly newsletter, which I edit. Here’s the first part of the piece, along with my original introduction. I’ll be running contributions from the other writers who participated in the days ahead.

Several things inspired me to put this project together. But mainly, it’s because I still frequently encounter the tiresome “nerdy boys club” stereotype regarding speculative fiction writers and readers. The widespread perception that our branch of literature is the domain of emotionally and socially stunted man-children who don’t want icky girls in their club unless they happen to be wearing skimpy cosplay outfits at conventions.
I think it’s important that we speculative fiction writers do everything in our power to help dispel that stereotype, and make it clear that women are a major, vital and respected part of our community. So I reached out to a number of prominent woman science fiction, fantasy and horror authors and editors, and invited them to share their perspectives.
Tom Joyce

MARY SANGIOVANNI

SangiovanniMary SanGiovanni is the author of 10 horror and thriller books, one of which was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award, as well as numerous short stories. She has a Masters degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, Pittsburgh and teaches English classes at her local college. She is currently a member of The Authors Guild, The International Thriller Writers, and Penn Writers.

I think writers of my generation are in a unique position to have been able to observe first-hand how the industry has changed regarding the prominence of women in the horror field. In movies, we have seen women go from shrieking, fleeing victims to capable and quick-thinking heroines on screen; we have seen more women writing, directing, producing, and filming quality horror. We have seen a broader range of topics explored in horror, taking into account the psychology of fear from both male and female perspectives. And of course, in publishing, there are increasing numbers of women writers offering lasting and canonic works to the body of classic horror literature. These women, in the tradition of great horror writers before them, are stretching and breaking boundaries in the exploration of fear; they are finding new and terrifying ways to look at the world around them. Further, they are writing their work in their own way, not necessarily prone to be imitative of the historically male-dominated approach to horror. I believe it’s an over-simplification to state that works are intrinsically written in a masculine or feminine point of view; I think so much more goes into the crafting of a finely textured, deeply layered story than just a psychology or perspective based on sex or gender. However, I’d venture to say that women and men are often raised to fear different things, and further, to react and respond differently to those fears. This creates a variety of possible ways to present subject matter in a horror story that can be accessed by either men or women. The awareness of this, especially in modern horror fiction, has led to the creation of sophisticated works by both men and women which truly engage a wider audience. Horror is not about the mask that is worn, but the face beneath that mask; the root of fear an audience can understand and identify with is what drives a horror story, not the monster in which that fear is embodied, be it a boogeyman associated with the nightmares of man, or those of women. I believe that women have incorporated this notion into their work in order to overcome the stereotype that women’s horror is “soft” or “not scary.” Their work serves to prove that their own unique perspective of things can be absolutely scary, whether that is in spite of or because that perspective has been generated in a female mind.
My generation has largely been influenced by male horror writers (Stephen King, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, Dean Koontz, etc.) because men dominated the field for decades. I think it’s gratifying to see many new women horror writers listing both men AND women as influences in their own writing. I think that is as validating as anything else, because we, as writers, start out as fans of the genre. We simply want to contribute to the body of literature that inspired and shaped so much of our thoughts and feelings. It’s a powerful thing to know that readers and fans of the genre are reading more widely, taking chances on what in the past would have been dismissed, perhaps, as “fluff,” and finding in women writers’ works some truly frightening and memorable stories. It solidifies the idea that women are, in fact, taking part in continuing the literary tradition that they have so very much enjoyed.
We’ve come a long way from naked nubiles being carried off by buff and scaly monsters or swarmed by lascivious cultists. These stories have their place in the history of horror, as do any stories that speak specifically to a kind of horrific event, but it’s nice to see a broadening of ideas that can be interpreted as “horror” in our field. There is no shortage of emotion or action, deviant or otherwise, for writers to delve into.
I think it’s important to note, when discussing the topic of women horror writers, that true equality comes when writers are judged based solely on the merit of their work — when the time comes that horror writers are not identified first by gender and then by genre, but simply as writers in their field. I think the horror genre benefits from a rich diversity of voices and perspectives, not a narrowing of them. And I am proud and pleased to see that this seems to be the direction in which the horror genre is heading.

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DickI believe I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I edit the quarterly newsletter, called “The Speculator,” for the writers’ group Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers. I like to include an interview in each issue. For the September issue, I had the opportunity to interview Dick DeBartolo — one of Mad Magazine’s most prominent writers and a childhood hero of mine.  (For more about my life-long fandom of Mad, read here.) Needless to say, I was thrilled. Here’s the story that ran in the newsletter. Since The Speculator is for and about writers, much of the emphasis is on the craft and business of writing. But even if you’re not a writer, I hope you’ll find it interesting. And I’d like to thank my good friend Doug for helping make contact with Dick. Doug, give me a shout if you ever need a kidney.

 

“Mad’s Maddest Writer” Dick DeBartolo on Writing Parody

By Tom Joyce

As you might guess from my membership in this group, and my editorship of this newsletter, I’m a big fan of speculative fiction. So don’t take the following statement as a dis.

Speculative fiction lends itself to parody.

Think of the works of speculative fiction that simultaneously serve as genre parodies and great stories in themselves. The writing of Douglas Adams, Christopher Moore and Terry Pratchett immediately come to mind. For further examples, you could go as far back as Fritz Leiber’s classic Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, or head to your local multiplex and watch “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

So I thought it might be helpful for us as writers to get some insights from a parody writer. As luck would have it, I got to speak to one of the all-time greats.

Dick DeBartolo is one of Mad Magazine’s most prominent and prolific writers, having contributed to the magazine since the early 1960s. He specialized in the magazine’s movie and TV satires, which were always my favorite part of the magazine.

Dick also hosts a wonderful netcast about gadgets and technology called Giz Wiz, which is available on TWIT.tv. He’s a regular guest on segment on ABC News Now, and was recently interviewed on the public radio program Studio 360 (which is available online). He is also the author of “Good Days and Mad: A Hysterical Tour Behind the Scenes at Mad Magazine.”

Dick asked that the interview take the form of a phone conversation, rather than responding to e-mailed questions. So I’ll have to do some paraphrasing, as I wasn’t able to write down everything verbatim. But it’s worth it, because I’ve been a fan of Mad since I was a kid, and being able to talk to Dick made my week, month and year. As an added bonus, Dick turned out to be every bit as funny, charming and flat-out cool as I could have hoped.

So here’s the gist of what Dick and I talked about:

Dick said that he naturally gravitated toward movie and TV satires. And the bad movies were a lot easier to satirize.

“The more serious the movie was and the more pretentious it was, the more fun it was to make fun of it,” he said.

TV satires were more difficult, because they were more of a time commitment. He’d have to watch five or six episodes to get a feel for the show’s approach and its characters.

Unlike the movie satires, which would follow the plot of the source material, he would have to construct his own plots for the TV satires. That could yield some interesting results. When he wrote the satire for the campy science fiction TV series “Lost in Space,” he placed the characters on a planet with giant vegetation. Not long after, he encountered series star June Lockhart on the set of the game show Match Game, where he was also a writer. She jokingly asked him if the magazine had spies on its staff, because the plot of his parody mirrored one of an upcoming episode.

His propensity for making fun of movies meant that he was rarely invited to previews, but that was fine by him. He preferred seeing movies with audiences so he could take note of the scenes that got the biggest reactions from the crowd, and be sure to reference them in the satires.

He was apparently doing something right. No less a luminary than Roger Ebert once told Dick that he learned how to criticize movies through Mad’s dissection of them.

Here are Dick’s insights on:

TECHNIQUES FOR PARODY

— Your intended audience should be familiar with the source material. When you’re riffing off something, it helps if they get the references.

— Dick is a big fan of what he calls “The Rule of Three” for satire. You have two references to something normal to establish a pattern and set up the punchline, then deliver that punchline on the third reference.

For example: “Is this rocket going to make it to the moon?”

“Yes. We’re using the highest octane fuel, the most powerful engine, and a big bottle of Mentos and Coke.”

— Running gags can be very effective. Try to find a hook within the context of the story, and keep non-sequiturs to a minimum. For example, in his parody of “The Poseiden Adventure” about a capsized ocean liner, Dick made a running gag out of the characters’ linguistic confusion over “up” vs. “down,” which got more absurd and funny as the story progressed. (“I’m seasick. I think I’m gonna throw down.”)

MAD MAGAZINE

The magazine was initially very male-oriented, for boys in the 10-through-15-year-old range. Initially, the magazine only satirized G-rated movies. Now its approach is more inclusive. He also describes it as “rougher” than it used to be, with edgier humor.

“When it came out, it was the only thing like it,” Dick said. “Now that’s all changed. Mad is like a mirror of society.”

SELF-PROMOTION FOR WRITERS

“The Web is where it’s at,” Dick said “You can do so much with no money.”

Where social media is concerned, Google Plus users tend to be more interested in serious, straightforward information. Facebook and Twitter users gravitate toward the “silly stuff.”

“Make yourself a valuable information source on the Internet,” Dick advises. “You get followers. Follow your followers.”

Remember Teel James Glenn, neo-pulp author and stunt coordinator? If not, read his interview here. He’s awesome.

After the meeting where he spoke, we had a really good discussion at lunch about movie fight scenes. I was pretty psyched to find out that a professional stunt coordinator shared a lot of my opinions about them.

First of all, we both really dislike the way fight scenes are directed in most modern movies. They tend to be filled with rapid cuts — frequently cutting away from the combatants to their surroundings — so you can’t even tell what the hell is going on.

I’d always assumed the reason for that is because directors are trying to conceal the fact that the actors aren’t really fighting, and stunt doubles are doing all the work. But Teel said it’s more because most modern directors don’t understand the psychology of fighting. They do those jump cuts because that’s the way they film conversations. One guy “speaks” with his fist, the other answers, etc. Teel said directors have also told him that they make the cameras jump around to simulate the “disorientation” and “confusion” of being in a fight.

I’ve done some martial arts training that involved full-contact sparring, as has Teel. And we agreed that when you’re really engaged in a fight, you’re not the least bit distracted. If a guy standing directly in front of you is intent on hitting you, there’s very little else of interest to you at that moment. Yeah, you should be aware of your surroundings, but you’re certainly not swinging your gaze around randomly at other objects in the room.

It turns out Teel is also a big fan of my all-time-favorite movie fight scene, which is James Bond vs. Grant in “From Russia With Love” (1963).

Here’s a clip.

I didn’t know this until Teel made me aware of it, but the guy who staged that fight scene was a former paratrooper named Bob Simmons. That makes sense.

One of the things I like about this scene is that the two opponents aren’t simply trading punches on the jaw, which happens in a lot of movies from the 1960s. Nor are they wasting time with a bunch of balletic high kicks, which you’d see in action movies from later eras.

Nope. They’re fighting like a couple of guys who are intent on killing each other, and don’t give a royal fuck how graceful or gallant they look in the process.

Like the parts where Bond takes Grant’s jacket off his shoulders to trap his arms, then knees him in the sternum? And stomps on his spine? And slams the door in his face? That’s some dirty shit! And that headlock Bond gets Grant in at about the 2:40 mark is banned in Judo and jiu jitsu competitions, because it’s what you’d do if you wanted to break a guy’s neck.

Sure, there are plenty of cuts in the scene. But they serve to convey what’s going on in the fight, not obscure it. Another thing I like about it? No background music. Two guys are trying to kill each other with their bare hands, for cryin’ out loud! If you can’t make that exciting without putting a bunch of techno crap in the background, it’s time to go back to film school.

So THAT’S how you do a fight scene. Modern directors, watch and learn.

This past Saturday, I attended my first meeting of Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers in a while. As I’ve mentioned (whined about?) in some recent posts, I’ve been really busy lately and a lot of things got put on the back burner.

The meeting is in North Jersey and it’s a nearly two-hour drive for me. But it’s worth it. The group is made up of a very talented, professional and dedicated group of writers, and I always take away something valuable.

At this meeting, the guest speaker was Teel James Glenn. The guy’s pretty much a walking encyclopedia of things I consider to be cool. He writes books that are intentional throwbacks to the classic pulp era of the 1930s, of which I’m also a fan. Some elements of The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report were intended as a homage to classic pulps, including the tough-guy detective hero and the gang of masked villains.

Teel is also a martial artist, professional stuntman, and fight coordinator for movies. He’s got a particular specialty in sword fighting. I picked up his now out-of-print (but not for much longer, as a reissue is on the way) Them’s Fightin’ Words!: A Writer’s Guide To Writing Fight Scenes. I know we’re not too far into 2014 yet, but that still pretty much made my year. Hell, he’s even into sleight-of-hand.

Check out his Website, The Urban Swashbuckler. (Come on! How freakin cool is THAT?)

Anyway, he said something about writing that really had a big impact on me, and helped me get past something I was struggling with in the novel I’m currently working on.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read articles, writing manuals, and critical think pieces about popular culture that stress the importance of two elements in fiction: A flawed hero and a compelling villain. (more…)

So why was Ray Harryhausen, the special effects pioneer who died today at the age of 92, such a revered figure? I could write about that for hours. But let’s keep it simple. In 1963, he created a skeleton army for “Jason and the Argonauts” and it looked like this. (FYI: The guy who posted this apparently added his own soundtrack. Whatever.)

In 1999, with far more advanced technology and a shit-ton more money at their disposal, the special effects team for “The Haunting” created a CGI ghost. And it looked like this:

Any questions?

stewieI guess I’m weighing in a little late in the news cycle about Seth MacFarlane’s now-notorious Oscars hosting gig. But I’m not really going to talk about the gig itself, so much as what it illustrates about the nature of humor. And in that respect, a little bit of perspective is probably a good thing.

As a writer of humor – or what I HOPE constitutes humor, anyway – it’s a debate that I’ve followed, in the hopes that I might glean some insights.

MacFarlane, of course, took a lot of criticism for the jokes he made. Many observers, including Jamie Lee Curtis and Jane Fonda, branded him as sexist. Particularly infuriating, from the critics’ standpoint, was a musical number titled “We Saw Your Boobs,” which was essentially a listing of movies in which female actresses showed their breasts.

Another factor in the controversy, for better or worse, is the fact that MacFarlane’s appearance accomplished exactly what the Oscar programmers hoped it would. Ratings were up, particularly among the coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic. (more…)

Jonathan Burns is a professional magician and contortionist. When I found that out, I formed a picture in my mind. Something mysterious and exotic.

Perhaps he’d journeyed to some remote spot in Nepal, where he’d spent years in a cave learning esoteric meditation and yogic techniques from some wizened guru before traveling back to the West so he could stun audiences with his otherworldly powers.

When I spoke to him after his performance at the Magicians Alliance of Eastern States 2012 convention, he disabused me of that notion.

How did he become a professional contortionist? Well, he was that weird kid in school who could twist his body in disturbing ways, and liked to freak out the girls with it. To his credit, he never grew out of that. And he managed to turn it into a highly entertaining act.

Seriously. At the convention, he had pretty much the entire room doubled over in laughter as he did stuff like working his entire body through a toilet seat.

Words wouldn’t do it justice, so I won’t even attempt to describe his act, other than to say it was eye-popping, endearingly child-like, and very funny. Here’s the interview and a link to his site, which includes some videos so you can see for yourself.

How long have you been performing?

I was always a bit of a ham. I was the kid who would put his leg over his head to gross out girls in gym class or perform arm pit farts at the family reunion. My parents decided to channel that energy and took me to a local magic shop when I was about 12. I picked up a bunch of tricks and would perform them for anyone who’d watch. Eventually, someone noticed and asked me to perform at their daughter’s birthday party. I gathered up all my tricks, put on a sparkly vest, and made about $20. From there I was hooked! (more…)