May 23, 2016

12 Opening Lines to Start Your Novel Right Now

12 writing prompts in one go. If you manage to tie these twelve into a single, coherent story, I'll gladly call you a genius.

1. In 2001 I buried a man and a woman in the desert, southeast of Pahrump. They claimed to be my siblings, which I know is a lie. In 2016, they showed up on my doorstep smiling, with a bunch of daffodils and a bottle of Volnay Clos d'Audignac like nothing had ever happened.

2. Dead set on making up for 1987, Paul crossed the street clutching the gun in his pocket.

3.  They called him Elbow Wizard on account of things tended to break open when he used his elbow on them — be they heads or walnuts.

Andreas Wiedemann

4. Mrs Belfry turned the unusual potato in the light, her thin old fingers so translucent Maria couldn't help but think of shower curtains and Victorian ghosts.

5. Theodore woke up in the garden, on the ground, about six years ahead of the alarm he had set the night before. He had time-traveled in his sleep again.

6. Silke touched the redwood and stopped breathing.

Ana Markovitj

7. The pigeons all looked suspicious, the crumbs on the ground no less.

8. Peterson turned to face the bay of Biscay and said, no force on this Earth will make me go look for my son when he doesn't want to be found.

9. There, I have come home, said the Tartessian in bad Greek. He pointed to a black pillar standing in the fog that mantled the shore. Howls and woebegone cries rose from that fog and one of the sailors covered his mouth: "Sirens!" he gasped. "No, not sirens," I said. "I smell something worse."

Hans Kanters

10. The disturbance began with a tour of the empty slaughterhouse.

11. A woman threw her glasses on the ground as I drove by and next thing I knew a fist-sized rock flew through my windshield.

12. Marcel sat down, flicked the imp off his desk and picked up his quill. "You will never finish this copy of yours," said the imp. "You do your duty, devil, and I do mine," said Marcel. "I shall blunt your nibs and vomit on your vellum!" said the imp, clambering up Marcel's leg.  

Scorpion Dagger

May 17, 2016

Culture Wars VII:

The naked people came howling down the mountainside! Jane reached for Tomeka's arm, toppling her coffee cup, browning the scratched Formica tabletop. "Chantelle! Lock the back door!" an old waitress yelled.
"They were telling the truth," said Jane. "Not just messing with us."

Dellydel, Make America Great Again

A note on the names used for this prompt:

Tomeka has never enjoyed much popularity as a baby name. It allegedly derives from the Swahili word for sweet, tamu. How you get from point A to point B on that, I can't really say.
A more likely origin would be the Japanese Tamiko, "child of the people."
However, Tomeka is an American coinage. As a forum member on Behind the Name noted, "The name was probably introduced to the United States by the 1963 film A Girl Named Tamiko. This film, though about a Japanese woman falling in love with a White American man, was in many ways an anti-racism story. This appealed to African-Americans back in the 1960s, and some of them who saw the movie named daughters Tamiko because of it."

Jane, on the other hand, has taken root in dozens of languages. From Ivana to Xoana, the name varies from language to language, country to country, until it takes on shapes that challenge belief. But then, Jane means "Grace of God," and what typical parents throughout History would sneeze at that?

Chantelle comes to us from French Chantal, meaning "stony" in its original incarnation. (Or "inlapidation"? "Inlithification"? I don't know.) Now people associate it with chanter, to sing. Which is just as well.

May 13, 2016

5 Questions with Soren Narnia of the Knifepoint Horror Podcast

Do you remember your first campfire story? The thrill of pondering the unknown as a wall of black trees surrounded you under the roof of night?

Two weeks ago I happened upon a podcast that recreated that experience for me. I didn't know what I was looking for — it found me instead. Knifepoint Horror barely teased the contents of each episode, with one-word titles like Sleep, Fields or Staircase.

Lying back in my chair and pressing the play button I listened to Chasm. Told in the first person, it took you on a dangerous journey to lake Baikal where a curious man faces a thing of nebulous contours and dread so immense he won't even look upon it.

Max Ernst, The Temptation of Saint Anthony

That one episode hooked me. I started binge-listening. Then I wanted to know more about the guy who wrote these short, sometimes intentionally artless tales and read them out loud at a slow steady pace.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you 5 Questions with Soren Narnia. And I encourage you to learn the story behind that pseudonym.

Can you describe yourself in three words?

Lazy, daydreaming procrastinator.

Can you remember/describe the first thing you ever wrote?

That would be the super-awesome 'Valley of the Vampires', a 4-page, 28-word handwritten opus complete with illustrations and bound with two stout staples. In the first sentence, I informed the reader that there was such a thing as the Valley of the Vampires. In sentence #2, I assured them that this was a bad thing. In sentence #3, I assured them that it was REALLY a bad thing. That was pretty much where the story ended.

As a writer, I suppose you have a number of favorite authors. Who might they be?

J.G. Ballard for his kind of sad yet disturbing sci-fi writings; Kurt Vonnegut for his humanity, grim ironies and totally unique style; H.P. Lovecraft for his comfortingly repetitive visions in that creepy Cthulhu world; Joyce Carol Oates for the way she writes about the jumble of neuroses and flaws that make up even the most functional among us; Spalding Gray for his likeable everyman adventures; Stephen King for his impressive skill with words and the ability to create such recognizable human beings and situations.

In one of your stories, you mention a fictional movie, "The Language Demons Speak" by the equally fictional moviemaker Thomas Naroth. Do you see a metaphor for the genre of horror lurking in that title, where "demon" stands both for the Christian concept of demon as evil spirit and the Greek concept of daimon as spirit guide? What is horror trying to tell us, then? 

Horror is the spirit guide that takes our hand and offers us a virtual encounter with gruesome death so that our curiosity about what it might be like to suffer one can be temporarily satisfied. Then the spirit takes us back home safe and sound. But if we ask the spirit to show us another death, and another, and another, that spirit starts to become a true demon, trapping us in unhealthy dark thoughts, making us enjoy them too much, causing us to forget that it's not good to look so often into the spidery corners of mortality. Once you're possessed by that demon, it's time to start watching Star Wars movies or rom-coms or something, for the sake of your mental health.

Two Knifepoint Horror episodes feature trees as very prominent symbols -- for example, the trio of phantasmal trees that appear to the narrator's uncle in Sleep. What do trees mean to you?

There's something up with trees. On a lovely summer day, they're beautiful leafy green shade-givers. On a crisp autumn day, a dazzling display of natural color. But on a cold drizzly day in winter, they're intimidating, beckoning, silent and jagged ogres looming all around you on every side, each step in the forest pulling you deeper into the embrace of a silent coven whose intent is unknown. The seasons completely transform their meaning to me. So here's my open statement to trees: I'm not buying your innocent act anymore. I know what you really are. Who the hell do you think you're dealing with? You think I'm a total chump? Do you?

FOR MORE: || knifepoint horror

May 9, 2016

The Monster's Last Meow

"I have... call it a PhD in monsters. I'm not even sure certain things have actually happened to me."
"What things?" she asked.
"Would you like me to slow down time? I've got some of the old juice left, and it's a long story."
"Did you say slow down time?"

Poster by Polish designer Franciszek Starowieyski for the play Oni ("They")

Apparently his posters are in such high demand you have to ask to go on a wait list.
See dozens of Starowieyski's poster designs here.

Apr 22, 2016

Obituary for an Adverb

Men called it Athwart. Once it walked proudly as a warrior among warriors, an adverb among adverbs. But it came to serve a purpose so obscure, so clad in ninefold darkness, that in modern times you could not find that purpose without a 1,500-watt metal halide lamp.

Nobody knew what it did anymore when, around 1915, Athwart retreated to the Orkneys to live among the seals. Or Svalbard, perhaps.

It came from Old Norse stock, with the mighty Thverr for a grandsire, and never lost that cold edge you need to sail the treacherous seas and suffer the chill Atlantic fogs. When red the blood coursed in Athwart's veins it bred with nouns and prepositions. Thus the seaworthy vocable, the broad-shouldered if ungainly word, athwartships, came into this world.

Athwart. Child of a time when blades spoke more often than tongues and only the stars traveled the sky-roads. Explorers fade from memory and so fade their particular yearnings. No dragons populate the edges of this Earth. The dragons have flown to outer space.

Maybe Athwart will come back from a long winter sleep and bring with it a host of forgotten words when the bold and the hungry find themselves on the first ship bound for an alien, life-giving star.

Ettore Aldo del Vigo

Aug 13, 2015

All the Writing Advice in the World Will Turn You into the Worst Writer in the World

Once when I was six I dreamed my mother wanted to eat me. She could feel her mind slipping and said, "It's awful, but I can't help myself. I'm going to have to eat you."

Everybody else succumbed to the same lunacy that struck my dream-mother. The living blush of their cheeks turned blue and their words became grunts and snarls.

The Three Incomparable Wise Men Lecture the Unruly Giant on Matters of Virtue
by John Magnet Bell

Fast-forward to this very morning. I dreamed of aliens announcing themselves to humanity by putting on a light show all over the night sky. I was alone with an old man out in a field. He was crying. I was telling him to bury his sins in a hole. I looked up and noticed there were too many stars. All the stars moved at once and formed a series of glimmering, interlocking vesicae piscis, not unlike that pattern people call "Flower of Life."

via Charles Gilchrist

Then the pattern ebbed away in a shower of golden fairy dust. And we knew in our hearts that the aliens were good. That they were our siblings in Mind. Suddenly I was flying over house and field holding my dead father's hand. He was alive again.

Santideva once wrote in the Bodhicaryavatara, "Nothing new will be said here, nor have I any skill in composition. Therefore I do not imagine that I can benefit others. I have done this to perfume my own mind."

James Altucher once wrote, "Deliver poetry and value with every word. Else, be quiet."

These two statements seem contradictory.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo wrote, "For the most part, we admire our own opinions and become fond of arguing."

So I won't offer to guide you. Won't tell you how, why, or what to write. Not today, at least.

But there are two Mothers in writing. The one that separates and devours and the one that nourishes and reunites. The first Mother lives by "do not," and the second lives by "do what you will." The first one bans and threatens and proscribes. The second one opens doors.

You will find people telling you not to use adverbs. Others will tell you not to use adjectives. Many say, "use strong verbs." What have the parts of speech done to deserve banishment? Or special recommendation, for that matter?

You will find people who read only their contemporaries. This is not a bad thing in itself. You will find people who claim to be writers but openly declare their aversion for writing that is more than a hundred years old. The fault does not lie with the works that they can't read.

March of Progress
by John Magnet Bell

It is good and human to seek advice. It is also human, but not always good, to provide guidance, especially when you are one hundred and one percent sure of yourself. I mean this only in regard to writing, which is not an exact science. You can solve a quadratic equation and demonstrate the correctness of your work. You can predict the behavior of a gas under pressure. You can build a piston engine if you follow the principles that govern the building of piston engines.

Writing is an art. Like painting and acting. Not a science. Not a business. An art. Whoever advises you on writing to sell is teaching you business practices. There is nothing wrong with this, but let's not pretend it's something else. Let's not pretend it's art. Let's not pretend it's about becoming a "better writer." Good writing sells right now. Art sells forever and its worth multiplies until it becomes the patrimony of all people for all time. Until it can't be sold anymore.

Pliny wrote that a shoemaker approached the painter Apelles of Kos and told him that he, Apelles, had painted a sandal wrong. Apelles corrected that defect in his painting. The shoemaker then began to point out all sorts of flaws in the picture, at which point Apelles told the shoemaker, "Ne supra crepidam sutor iudicaret," a shoemaker should not judge above the sandal. And out of this episode welled forth William Hazlitt's word, ultracrepidarian, which my spellchecker refuses to admit is a real word.

An ultracrepidarian — from the Latin saying, Sutor, ne ultra crepidam — likes to give opinions on matters beyond their expertise. I see many ultracrepidarians out there.  Sometimes I ultracrepidate myself.

Other times I look up at the sky and my brothers and sisters draw the vesica piscis with fire and I fly over house and field —

Jun 19, 2015

But I Just Want to Write About my Pet Rock: Here's the Missing Ingredient in Your Story

Do you know what contrast is? If somebody asked you point blank, would you have a ready answer?

Now ask yourself: Do I know what contrast is for?

Tilikum Crossing Flooded with Light
by John Magnet Bell
view it on an awesome t-shirt || view it on a cool tote bag

We think we know these things. Your intuition tells you when contrast is missing, but it doesn't always tell you how to fix it. Before we start looking for answers to the questions above, though, let's posit a workable definition of the noun "contrast." defines contrast variously as "a striking exhibition of unlikeness" and "opposition or juxtaposition of different forms, lines, or colors in a work of art to intensify each element's properties and produce a more dynamic expressiveness."

Merriam-Webster suggests "to be different especially in a way that is very obvious."

While the Free Dictionary offers "distinction or emphasis of difference by comparison of opposite or dissimilar things, qualities, etc."

Let's fish out some keywords, shall we?


So, with those keywords in mind, let us say that contrast is the expression of ideas (forms or content) that are unlike one another and may be opposed or juxtaposed with different emphases in order to create a perceptual dynamic.

Take a look at the picture below.

Hard to make out anything, right? I deliberately fudged the color and shape contrast.

This is in fact one of my photographic collages, Mr. Glitch, 4: Broken Hopes.

By using color accents within a limited palette, I draw your attention to specific parts of the picture. I do the same with values of light and dark. By making that apple larger than any apple could ever be, I create a contrast in your mind between the possible and the absurd. Contrast, be it about shape or color, creates dynamics.

Yeah, OK, I hear you ask, but how does any of this apply to writing?

Well, Have you ever watched the movie Serpico, starring Al Pacino? Right from the start, Serpico wants to be a good cop, wants to be on the up and up. He faces opposition and resistance all the time. Even his girlfriend wants him to get with the program. Nobody wants to be his partner because he won't take bribes. He won't participate in protection rackets. He won't bend just because everybody else has. That's a strong contrast right there: Somebody who steps into a world of shit because "This is how we do things" is just not good enough, and keeps running into the fragile excuses that the corrupt make for themselves.[1]

Contrast in Serpico is achieved through character.  Serpico is emphatically not like the people around him. He is more driven, more persistent, more demanding of himself and others.

A still from Serpico.

Or, take Game of Thrones (the TV show; I can't discuss the books, as I haven't read them). I begin to feel that there are basically two categories of human being in GoT — thugs and victims, exploiters and the exploited, consummate liars and gullible people[2]. Nothing in the middle. It's not the most subtle gradation and all but the most prominent characters become something of a blur. Then you have your super-thugs, which aren't even human: White Walkers with their zombie army, plus a rampaging dragon. It makes for poor watching after a while.

Still from Game of Thrones: White Walker portrayed by Ross Mullan. Via interview on The Verge.

Yet Game of Thrones does have contrasting features, otherwise people would just stop watching. It achieves this, among other things, through color schemes. Up north, by the Wall, the color scheme is almost black and white. The Wildlings dress in practically colorless animal furs. The men of the Watch wear black, black and more black. Rare concessions to color include people's hair and the sickly blue of omnipresent snow, echoed by the abyssal eyes of the White Walkers. Down in King's Landing, devotees of the Faith Militant signal their asceticism by dressing all alike in crude robes of black wool, in stark contrast to the red and gold, the silk and velvet and the floral chasings of court dress. And then, you know, there's the somewhat unfortunate case of the white, ash-blonde Daenerys leading, "saving" and "emancipating" her legions of black/brown people.

However, a story cannot live on visuals alone.

So how can you tell that contrast is lacking in your writing?

ψ If all your characters move, think and talk alike, you don't have separate characters.

ψ When you can't define your characters' motivations (seriously, everybody wants something) they will just schlep along, unchanging and uninteresting. They will exit the stage as they entered: aimlessly. Considering the psychology of a character, if the end and the beginning are interchangeable, then that character is not protagonist material. Supporting cast, maybe. And even then...

ψ When each place in the setting looks the same as every other place, and does nothing but provide your characters with locales to stand in or move through, you don't have separate locations. It's all one big, monochrome blot.

ψ If chapter two doesn't add change and relevance, you don't have contrast. Just continuity. You don't have emphasis, what you have is repetition.

[1] Also the basic narrative premise for Lieutenant Jim Gordon in Batman: Year One. To a lesser degree in Batman Begins.
[2] In case you're wondering, to me both Daenerys and Brienne of Tarth lie closer to thug than victim on the thug-victim spectrum. Nobody is an exemplar of moral conduct in Game of Thrones, and that's one of the show's failings — its worldview is not wide enough to shunt cynicism aside for a couple of minutes. The constant message in GoT is that 99% of human beings want nothing but power over their fellows, and those foolish enough to want something else must adapt or die. You'd think someone in that endless cast of characters would develop beyond refined hypocrisy, for crying out loud. 

Jun 12, 2015

Snippets from the Sketchbook, 1 - Can Your Average Lizard Grow a Beard?

Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. - David Lynch

If you have been following this blog for a while -- or follow me on Google Plus or Twitter -- you know that I create visual art.

However, I don't usually share anything from my sketchbooks. Today, that changes. You see, the more I deepen my interest in the visual arts, the more parallels I find between drafting a story and sketching.

They're both about play. About fun. About creating characters and worlds.

Characters like Spider Sheep.

There's no wrong way to come up with ideas. And if there's one thing we need, all of us writers, bloggers, draftsmen, photographers and jewelers, I would call that thing sanctuary: a place where we can brainstorm until the heart and the page overflow.

A place where wrong ideas are right. A place of quiet openness where the strangest notions become clear and necessary. David Lynch compares this kind of brainstorming to fishing in deep, deep waters.

Larry, the Hipster Lizard

Doodling is like a duck call to the unconscious, where all those precious figments sit in Tumtum trees grooming their feathers (or fins?), waiting for a chance to break through the looking glass and serve you. Our job as artists is to bring wonder into the world. To make possible the things that shouldn't be. When Fritz Leiber introduced his tall and proud barbarian, Fafhrd, he let readers know that Fafhrd lived in a world where furry snakes existed -- yes, furry snakes. The cold north was so cold that snakes grew fur. We all know that's silly, but does it matter? No. Let us enjoy the silliness. Let us take silliness seriously.

Sketchbooks and text files are my fishing grounds. They are my orchard and labyrinth. I can invite you in, show you my flowers made of glass and smoke, my seven-legged frogs... and if you part from my company with more ideas, so much the better.

Steven, the Mackerel

And finally, will your average lizard grow a beard? Yes, one day it will. But to do so, it needs to cross the threshold of imagination.

Bearded dragon via

Post-scriptum: I came up with Spider Sheep, Larry and Steven in the space of an hour or less, just happily doodling away with a calligraphy pen. Love the line thickness variation you can get with those.