Creepy and disturbing black comedy–film at eleven

Last night, I flipped the channel to the weirdest “modern” (1996) movie I’ve seen since Terry Southern retired and paid the ferryman. It only got one star from the built-in TiVo and cable system blurb artists, but I think that’s because they didn’t “get” it or didn’t like the concept. It was actually a twisted retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” but only the beginning and ending were LRRH so much. I don’t know if I can even describe it, but any film in which Kiefer Sutherland begins to look and perform like his famous dad (and in which Reese Witherspoon gets to start out overacting, but then manages to make me believe about halfway through)–AND in which Brooke Shields protects her serial-killer hubby, then realizes he was a kiddie porn artist and kills herself–is unusual. It’s a black comedy like “Dr. Strangelove” in some sense.

_FREEWAY_ was actually made for theatrical release. It’s a dark, Tarantino-esque and scathing satire/parody on one hand, slamming the media culture we live in and making fun of society’s fascination with serial killers, out-of-control types, and outright psychopaths. But it also shows how an innocent can be caught up in a web that changes and shapes her. Reese’s character goes from a girl who defends herself from the serial killer to someone who attacks a guard and has no remorse. I couldn’t believe the scriptwriter got away with leaving in the most telling part of the scene in which she (spoiler alert) shoots the serial killer–before she pulls the trigger, she exacts the confession that he accepts Jesus as his lord and Savior (so he’ll be redeemed and can go to Heaven) and then she prays for forgiveness. Usually, movies don’t put in things like that, in my experience.

But this one lets you know up front that you’d better put on your suspenders of disbelief and expect them to be stretched to the breaking point, kind of the same way with Seven, Kalifornia, Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers, and parts of Beetlejuice. (And it reminds me of Peckinpah in the degree of violence shown. Or Polanski in his “Macbeth” period.) It’s surreal while being hyper-real. It touches on trailer trash culture, the conflict between “white trash” and “Yuppies,” explores whether anyone would be that upset if a serial killer confined himself to hookers, and so forth. But then again, it doesn’t. I might be reading a lot into it, but it says something that my husband sat there and watched the whole thing with me, while goggling and staring slackly at the screen. He also “got” it. It really belongs at an indie film fest or something. It was artsy in that trashy way. Disturbing, gritty, macabre, and just plain freaky. But it really is a work of art, if you can see it in the right light.

If you think you can deal with the paradigm bending, watch it when it comes back on cable or pluck the DVD out of the bargain bin at WallyWorld. (But don’t let kids under eighteen watch; for one thing, the language and situations are aaack, but for another, the serial killer character survives all those shots [impossible and implausible and couldn’t really happen] but is hideously disabled and disfigured, and viewers have to cope with Kiefer Sutherland uglified–it’s like in that episode of Daria when the crazy angry teacher makes the football QB Kevin wear the fake wart and scars and such for a week to see how ugly people are treated differently, a little bit. But then they “rehab” him to the point that he can come after her, which is also implausible after a couple of point-blank shots to the head, et al. Some kids would get the idea you could survive that, and the truth is that lesser wounds leave people vegetables and dead, and they shouldn’t get any ideas. Really, it’s supposed to be a black comedy, and it *is*, so don’t let younger kids watch. It kind of kept me up for a few hours shaking off the effects, and I’m a tough ol’ cookie.)

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Rejections lead to improvement? I doubt it.

I’ve just replied to a thread on the DOROTHY-L mystery readers and writers mailing list. I thought some other like-minded sorts might be interested in reading this.

At 05:52 PM 5/20/2003 -0400, Gar Anthony Haywood wrote:
>Once upon a time, if a host of agents and publishers kept kicking your manuscript
>back to your mailbox, it was probably due in no small part to some lack of literary
>merit. So you had good reason to connect those rejections to flaws in your
>manuscript, and rewrote accordingly.

Those were the good old days, I agree. But nowadays, you don’t get any indication of what’s wrong. They’ll simply say, “Not right for us at this time.” I’ve even had writers bring in their own cover letters or first pages that have been scribbled on with “Sorry–not for us” or “NO!!” (in one case), without even the bare courtesy of one of those quarter-page photocopied rejection slips. It’s pretty brutal out there now.

(I know writers have said this forever. But even the pro markets are saying it now.)

Agreed, the writers in question were not ready for prime time, and they were in the groups I led in order to improve. Still, they weren’t getting any direction from rejections. What they did get some direction from was the critique group(s) they were in and the groups such as I led (directed writing exercises, discussion, then critique of one or more chapters from a participant’s manuscript we’d taken home to mark up.)

I was there partly to keep them from misleading the writer (by claiming that semicolons no longer exist–I’ve actually battled that one more than once–or by claiming that one must NEVER use any form of BE, because it was ALWAYS an indicator of the forbidden passive voice. Of course, they’re wrong, or else “the tire was flat” would be in passive voice, when it’s in active voice, and also there’s a time for passive voice, such as when the actor is unknown or unimportant and the emphasis should be on the action.) It’s a “common wisdom” now that you must go through crit partners/groups and outside feedback or editing in order to get direction. And even then, your work may be deemed not right for a particular line.

If you get a lot of rejections, it could be your work isn’t targeted to some particular line.

Kathleen added:
>There would be more value in rejections if acceptance actually signified quality.

This speaks for itself, doesn’t it? “Accepted” books aren’t always worth reading, are they? (And I mean not for anybody, not just for people not Into That Kind Of Thing.)

Every publishing house is now out for best-sellers. They don’t want to serve the midlist. Even though you make the same money when you do eight books that earn, say, 250K, as when you do one that earns two million–and it’s far tougher to find the $2mil one and make the public gobble it up–they want to save themselves the extra work and just do the biggies. This is a disservice to the reading public, because one size doesn’t fit all, but they’re in the business to make money, not to serve art or humanity, after all. Maxwell Perkins is dead, and so is his legacy, it appears.

Literary agents don’t want to even talk to you if your “blurb” doesn’t make them think the book will go to auction. They have treated me rather shabbily, which is, I think, unbusinesslike (sure, when I work at day jobs, I get harried, but I don’t take it out on poor little hopefuls.) Exactly ONE agent has told me what she really finds lacking in the manuscripts she hasn’t taken on. I’m not even a client of hers. She must just be a Good Person. But what *she* said has actually been helpful. It isn’t at all typical. (She told me that cozies had to be 80K words or fewer, and thus that my two cozies wouldn’t fit the market; she read my fantasy and said it was too young adult for the SF markets, and she doesn’t handle YA or children’s books; she saw my other mystery and said she’d like to see me explain why Ariadne doesn’t suspect that Eddie is up to something and just ask him about it–which was a quite useful observation, because it made me realize that the reader doesn’t “get” their relationship and how she’s always been very hands-off with him, and I need to insert something subtle a couple of places earlier to let the reader catch on that she handles him with kid gloves for fear of his walking out.)

Someone else chimed in:
>I couldn’t agree more with Gar and Gene. To put it simply: rejection improves a
>manuscript.

Which is a generalization. What you really mean, I suppose, is that *if* the rejection is actually based in reality rather than just market considerations only–and I’ll get more into that in a moment–and *if* there is a well-articulated reason given in the rejection, then perhaps the writer can recognize what’s really wrong and can figure out how to fix it without breaking something else. (Sometimes three people will tell you something’s wrong, and they’ll all tell you different things that are wrong, and it won’t be any of those things but actually a fourth problem that you need to correct. Such as, you haven’t set up something properly, and so they’re expecting something else. They demand description of some place when they should just “default to” a normal drugstore, for example. It means you have led them to believe it’ll be different, and your emphasis is messed up. And so forth.)

But what repeated, anonymous rejection generally does to those with an artistic temperament is . . . it throws them into a depression and makes them think their work is worthless, and sometimes that they’re worthless. It doesn’t “improve the work.” The only thing that improves the work is constructive feedback the likes of which editors don’t have TIME any more to articulate, let alone type out and send to you. Also, *you* have to just *know* the craft. You’ll type a million wasted words while you’re learning, just the way that potters throw a bunch of worthless pots and carpenters build some iffy structures while they’re apprentices and journeymen. Once you have done this for a while, you’ll be able to improve your own work by just letting the draft rest for a month or two, then coming back to it. Also, a trusted reader or crit partner can be invaluable, as long as they’re not dimbulbs and they don’t take you down the primrose path to ruin.

On the other hand, there are too many writers already. So the industry prolly figures that anything they can do to discourage some of them is good. Thus, abrupt and non-informative rejection.

*Now.* That said, I suspect this thread was actually a veiled attempt to ask whether the people who do POD books and self-publish are aware that their books aren’t good enough for prime time. The answer is that usually, they DO know this, but they want them in print anyway. After all, ugly women get married and have careers, too!! Not everyone can be the shining example of perfection, 110 lbs and blue eyes, etc. And not everyone has the same standard of beauty as promulgated on MTV. Readers aren’t, in general, as discriminating as critics and writers and editors, and they’ll devour just about any book and deem many of them good enough, even if there are flaws. (Witness the popular books that should have been rejected, but were published by large houses.)

I’m tarring every POD writer (including myself) with the same brush when I say this, but it’s true–most of what’s out there as e-books or POD or whatever is self-indulgent or flawed or not well written or, um, trash that needs a couple more passes through the typer (as Heinlein would say); however, this doesn’t mean that EVERYTHING that’s out there as POD is in that condition. Some books just don’t fit any pigeonholes, are perfectly fine books as they stand, and thus won’t be picked up by New York unless you self-pub, go out and promote, and then get noticed and picked up after you’ve taken the risk and proven them popular.

Sure, we could spend our entire lives revising and polishing the SAME book forever, but is that really useful? We want to go on and write another book that will be better and different, but maybe this book is not without value, even though New York doesn’t feel it can make money off of the book. There’s a point at which you have to say, “This is the book I had in mind, or as close as I can get it, and it represents the artistic intent and the story I wanted to tell. Any further changes–such as wholesale deletion of chapters and subplots or what-have-you–would make it not my story, and thus aren’t proper to do.” You have to be able to say, “I wrote something that is unlike what sells well today, and I still believe it’s worth reading, though it has a readership smaller than the pop best-sellers.” (There are fads, you know; now you aren’t allowed to use adverbs as dialogue tags and you’re supposed to SHOW what is meant, but in the past, those adverbs were shorthand used by everyone from Louisa May Alcott on down, and there was less ambiguity. If I show that someone scratches his head and twitches his eyebrows, does that mean he’s nervous, or that a fly is dive-bombing him, or that he’s lying? It’s less clear when you have to show and not tell. But that’s the way it is NOW, and that’s how we have to write. It has not always been so. The pendulum could swing back, or it could, as I suspect, change even further so that everything’s a transcript of a movie with no internal monologue in novels at all. But I digress. If you haven’t noticed already.) There are several examples of good books–even Pulitzer Prize-winning novels–that were published posthumously, after the writer killed himself or herself because he couldn’t write something that could get published. (_Confederacy of Dunces_ is the famous example. I believe there are others.) So just because you’re rejected doesn’t mean you’re BAAAAAD.

So, yes, okay, we KNOW that we could delete the first three chapters, make a car chase action scene at the climax, take out all the internal monologue, throw in a gory serial killer and his internal thoughts, add some explicit sex, and so forth, and “be more like the best-sellers,” but maybe we don’t want to. Maybe we feel that artistic integrity, being true to the initial vision of the story we wanted to tell, is more important. Maybe the tale of the Civil War kid who left home at fifteen to fight but then decides it’s morally wrong is worth reading. Maybe the tale of the man patterned after your grandfather who arrives in America with only the clothes on his back and three hungry children is worthy of our attention. And that’s perhaps the reason that POD and e-book authors are out here doing it “wrong.”

(Sorry if this sounds like an emotional diatribe. It’s actually a string of logical arguments. If you are a “thinker” instead of an “emoter,” this will come across differently. I assure you, though, that it’s not intended as an attack on Gar and the others who question whether POD authors realize they might improve their work. It’s just an explanation (in the best way I know how to make it) as to why someone might KNOW the work could be changed to be more marketable, but that there’s such a thing as taking the heart and original intent out of the story, and some authors won’t want to do that. The real “culprit” here is the market, I suppose, or maybe the bean counters who bought up all the publishing houses and then realized they didn’t make much money in the old days–and wanted them to be cash cows. The market really had little choice in the matter–and perhaps the market is interested in reading some of our POD books, after all, because they are not getting them from the large houses.)

Of course, I’m still out here beating my head against the wall, and proving they’re both equally hard. I’m working on a chick lit novel, a shorter mystery, and a fantasy/romance, all targeted at specific lines. I’m trying to rein in the word count. I’m trying to keep suspense up, and so forth. I’m going to try to sell all of them to New York houses. But I won’t be able to “write one like Stephen King/Diane Mott Davidson/Joan Hess,” simply because I’m not one of those writers. Their books are wonderful and appeal to millions, but they’re tours inside those writers’ minds.

What you get with me is, of course, a tour inside mine. And that’s going to have to be good enough, because that’s all I can offer on this side of the Great Veil.

Who knows what my destiny actually is? I can only hope it’s going to work out the way it’s supposed to.

Big best-seller or no.

Photography musings

If you’re a fan of great-looking photos, I have some advice.
Get a Nikon Pronea S before they’re all gone off the shelves. They’re on sale or clearance in many venues, and well worth having. I just love mine.

I’ve long been a Nikon devotee. When I first got old enough to afford my own 35mm SLR camera*, I got a used Canon AE-1 that was pretty nice. I later added an AE-1P (more automation, faster grabshots) with various lenses (105mm, 35mm, finally a zoom 35-70) and an FTb (totally manual, for playing around with.) Finally I could focus in on one element and make the background blurry, or the other way around, or use filters that made all the lights sparkly or haloed or buttery, or bracket shots and mess with exposure, and all the things I’d been so jealous of with people who had other than the cheapest Pocket Instamatic and the cheapie Polaroid Square Shooter. (Every Christmas I’d ask for a camera, and every Christmas I’d get the newest cheap Insty or Polaroid. Such a collection. Worth nothing, they tell me today.)

But I didn’t realize I was missing out on clarity until I borrowed a friend’s Nikon FA and shot a couple of rolls. Wow! It was like comparing the Barbie digital cam with a top-of-line new Sony. There was no comparison. From then on, Nikon optics were for me. I finally got one of their worst models ever (from the standpoint of eating batts and being heavy and using up lots of money), the N4004. It cost $700 plus the lens, and it couldn’t focus accurately on my black-and-white cat. When I returned to Asshole Camera Store the next day to say it wouldn’t focus accurately, he said you couldn’t expect it to focus well on high-contrast stuff. They would not take it back, noway nohow. Bastards. I still hate them. Anyway, the FA was out of production and I was outta luck. So from then on, I missed all my grab shots and often had mis-focuses. Still, when it was good, it was very very good, and the Nikon optics helped make up for the deficiencies. (I used to be able to catch a Frisbee or a baseball at the top of its trajectory or catch a runner braking the tape–with the Canon, which never failed to click the shutter when I rolled my index fingertip across the release, basically because I had learned just how much before the apex to anticipate where the whatever-it-is would be and shot just before that so that the film would be exposed during the high point–if you’ve ever used a single-lens reflex camera (SLR), where the mirror has to move out of the way before the shutter releases, you know what I’m talking about. Over time, you learn how your camera works and it becomes second nature.) Anyway, I was conflicted for years because the Canon could shoot more often (it went off, whereas the N4004 often refused to go off and wouldn’t do my bidding and just sat there while I missed the blowing out of candles, the accepting of diplomas, the kissing of the bride, the first dance of the evening, and so forth–I went from “the little photographer of the family” to “she used to be good at picturetaking”), but I wanted Nikon clarity.

Also, after fifteen years of being the one walking around with a 15-lb camera plus bulky zoom plus electronic flash around my neck with a guitar strap (getting a psoriasis patch of on back of neck as well as developing that Hunchback gait), I was sick of the heavy stuff. I realize that the APS negative is smaller than the 35mm, and enlargements may suffer, but just try enlarging most digital photos and see how much worse they are.

That’s when I discovered the Pronea. Hallelujah!!

Go get one, *now*. The APS system ain’t 35mm, and you may miss using all those interchangeable lenses and all those filters (I suppose you could get filters, though, and if you already have lovely Nikon lenses, you can mount them on the Pronea S), but there’s a zoom and it’s got Nikon optics. I get gorgeous shots from this sweetie. And it’s a palmful that is simple to lug around. It has a wrist strap. I never hesitate to carry it. Get one!

(Better than digital. Digital is good for quick stuff, but the optics are not there yet. use the Pronea and this neat Nexia film from Fuji, ASA400, and you’ll never wanna go back.)

Now if only we could afford to go anyplace to take pix. . . .

*I can’t say “when I first became interested in 35mm and pro photography,” because that happened way back when. I used a Brownie Instamatic of my dad’s and his (Nikkormatic!) 8mm movie camera whenever he’d let me, through childhood. We have film of me filming him filming me, and so forth. Yet I didn’t get that good until I was about eleven or twelve, and that’s when I wanted a 35mm, but the Instys of my own started arriving. They all had cool cases and were easy to load, and I’ll say this for ’em, they weren’t as blurry as cheapie digitals.

Long words, my Aunt Fannie’s foot–learn them!

In the spirit of improving one’s reading comprehension. . . .

In my papers, I don’t intentionally use pompous and grandiloquent language. I search for the _mot juste_ and then actually use it. I do see the critics’ point when they say, “Strive to be clear and simple”; yes, it helps if the audience you are addressing knows what you mean, but must I always cater to those gifted with a lesser vocabulary when I have at my disposal a fresh and beautiful expression? Yes, perhaps “periphrasis, tautology, perissology, pleonasm” should be avoided; I guess the usual instance of elaborate speech IS from some goof-ball trying to be a panjandrum. But I hate the expression “big words”. And think it’s silly to call me sesquipedalian, when that word really refers to the long words themselves. What if we always avoid longer words, even when they’re more precise? This, too, is lazy: “nisus” is smaller than “endeavor,” five letters _vs_ eight letters, and they mean the same thing. The description of these words that I will reluctantly accept is ‘rare words’.

LOGODAEDALY (from Latin *logodaedalia*, Greek *logodaidalia* fr Gk *logodaidalos*-skilled in verbal legerdemain, daidalos-skillful, ingeniously formed): The arbitrary or capricious coinage of words.

Coinage of the Week: dejanesia (noun) : the feeling that I’ve forgotten this before.
Last week: UMFRIEND (noun) – dubious relationship; as in, “This is my … um … friend.”

On the other hand, I can’t see the brand name “Titleist” on a cap or golf ball without thinking of the Beavis and Butthead episode. “He said tit-le-ist, huh huh huh.” My husband turns the channel to golf just to irritate me and pretends to watch and keep track of the yardage, et al, while I’m missing “Yard Sale” on HGTV (all about the 500-mile-long yard sale going on from Kentucky to Alabama this week in May), and then I see that stupid hat, and it’s just over.