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Monday, 30 March 2009

Gossip Girl Romance

As Gossip Girl would say, P was spotted kissing B on vacation in Mexico. In other words, Penn Badgely and Blake Lively, who play Dan Humphrey and Serena Van de Woodsen in the Gossip Girl TV series are a real life item! AND it turns out the sweethearts were classmates when they were younger. Awww. Let's hope their off-screen romance is more successful than Serena and Dan's!

Friday, 27 March 2009

Heroes and Monsters - Dan Wells

Monsters are very important to me in my writing; I love a good monster, whether it’s literally an evil, slavering creature or any other kind of villain. I think of all villains as monsters because of an old phrase I picked up somewhere in high school: “Sometimes the only way to defeat a monster is to become a monster yourself.” Pay close attention to that concept, because you’ll see it in one form or another in everything I write.

Let me illustrate the importance of monsters with another, more common phrase: “A hero is only as good/cool/interesting as his villain.” A hero who only fights morons might be incredibly intelligent, but the audience will never see him that way because his intelligence is never tested—he doesn’t have to be smart in order to win, so nobody cares about how smart he is. The same is true for speed, or strength, or any other skill your hero claims to possess. Would you care about a soldier’s incredible sniping accuracy if his target were very close and large? Would you care about a con man’s incredible ability to lie if his victim were very gullible? Of course not. Heroes are not heroic until they have overcome huge obstacles, and that requires a villain who will test your hero’s skills to their limit.

(Quick side note: in a lot of American stories you’ll see the hero marching off to face the villain, leaving his friends behind with the brave comment, “I have to do this alone.” How tough can the villain really be if the hero—often weak and inexperienced—can defeat him by himself? You will very rarely see this in Asian stories, because they understand this principle of heroes and villains. They hit the bad guy with everything they’ve got, and then after he’s taken down a whole room full of guys the audience will know he’s a worthy opponent, and the hero’s eventual victory will be that much sweeter.)

Back to the first phrase, about becoming a monster. Obviously it is not true in every case: sometimes Batman can whip out his shark repellent and stop the bad guys without any moral compromises, but those are not the stories that interest me. Consider a hero’s full suite of skills and talents; we’ll use Spider-man for the sake of argument: he’s very strong, very agile, very clever, and he can swing around on webs. But that’s only half of his talents—he has another full suite of personal and emotional talents that are less obvious but just as important to who he is: he is brave, he is loyal, he is trustworthy, and so on. A good villain will take that first set of talents and test them to their breaking points, but a great villain will test the second set—he will force Spider-man to make difficult or even impossible choices that affect not just what Spider-man can do, but who he is.

The climax of the first Spider-man movie is a great example, adapted from one of the most famous scenes in the history of comicbooks: the Green Goblin is on top of a bridge, supporting Spider-man’s love in one hand and a big group of people in the other. Spider-man’s powers would allow him to save either group (thus testing his physical traits), but not both, meaning that he will be forced to choose (thus testing his inner character traits). Spider-man tries to save both, and in the movie he succeeds, but in the comics he finds that the girl is dead—possibly from the fall itself, but more likely from the neck-snapping whiplash when Spider-man caught her. This is where it gets interesting; this is where a simple “stop the Green Goblin” punch-out became a defining moment in the life of a character. Spider-man’s villain forced him to make a choice, and the results of that choice have become an integral part of who Spider-man is and why (and how) he chooses to live his life. In attempting to defeat a killer, Spider-man became one himself, and that fact has affected the entire course of his life.

Other heroes have been faced with similar decisions. The Star Wars movies are about the corrupting influence of power, and the dual journeys of Luke and Anakin to use that power without succumbing to it. Jack Bauer frequently finds himself on the wrong side of the law, becoming in many ways no different than the terrorists he fights. Even our nation has been faced (multiple times) with the frightening paradox of waging war in the service of peace. All of our favorite heroes have had to face, at one point or another, the simple fact that in fighting an enemy we eventually take on that enemy’s traits. One of my favorite examples is No Country for Old Men, in which Sheriff Bell faces a monster so terrifying he chooses to retire rather than face the prospect of becoming like him.

In I Am Not a Serial Killer, I chose very specifically to blur the line between hero and monster as much as I possibly could. John Cleaver, ostensibly the hero, is haunted by emotions and desires and urges that lead him inexorably toward evil, and which he can barely control. The Clayton Killer (whoever he or she may be; no spoilers here) is a serial murderer but also a concerned citizen, a good friend, and a genuinely loving member of the community. John has to stop the killer, but the only way to do it is to give in to the dark side he’s fought against for so long. How will it affect him? How will it change the way he lives his life. As time goes on he starts to realize that the monster might be more human than he is, and underneath it all is the horrifying that that once John lets his dark side out, he might not be able to put it away again.

John’s character draws elements from many real-world serial killers, and I’ll talk more about some of them in a future blog, but one of the big ones is David Berkowitz. You know him better as the Son of Sam, but that’s the label the press gave him; in his own letters, he called himself Mr. Monster and begged the police to find and kill him. He knew what he had become, and that he couldn’t stop himself, and it destroyed him emotionally even as he continued to kill. John is all to aware of this fate, and tries to avoid it at all costs—except that sometimes the cost is too high, and deep down he knows that saving other people is better than saving yourself.

I think this is why the monstrous hero appeals to me so much—in the end it is the ultimate heroic sacrifice, because it is the sacrifice of self. Not every hero can, or should, go to such lengths that they lose their humanity, but the ones who do will always be the ones I love.

Friday, 20 March 2009

When We Were Very Young - Dan Wells

When I was a kid my Mom would recite poems to us; there were several, but I remember three of them more than any others: Bed in Summer by R. L. Stevenson, Animal Crackers by Cristopher Morley, and Vespers by A.A. Milne. I will admit that I had to look up those first two just now in order to find the authors, but the third, Vespers, I did not: I’ve had it memorized for most of my life, I own three copies of both Christopher Robin poem collections, and I’ve read them all countless times. My mother, and arguably that one poem, sparked a lifelong love of poetry that only continues to grow.

The best poetry is like a puzzle: how can you say something, or evoke an emotion, or prompt a specific reaction, in the simplest way possible? Poetry allows you to paint with words, to create images and feelings in your reader that ordinary prose cannot.

It started with Milne, so I’ll start there now: A.A. Milne is one of the greatest poets of the English language, and if he had written “grown up” poems instead of children’s poems he would be widely celebrated as such. Read Disobedience and look at the way he uses such strict rhythm and rhyme, yet managing to be completely playful and even conversational. Read Happiness out loud and listen to the way the sparse, simple words create such a perfect syncopation. Then read Politeness, and Halfway Down, and Teddy Bear, and The King’s Breakfast, and…well, all of it. The man is a genius.

Robert Browning is not one of my favorite poets, but in My Last Duchess he taught me one of the most important writing lessons I’ve ever learned: narrators can lie. I’ve essentially built a career on that premise, and it’s certainly nothing new, but reading My Last Duchess opened a whole new world of possibilities. Read it now and watch the way Browning tells you two stories at once: one on the surface, as a duke shows his visitor a portrait on his late wife, and another story buried in subtext in which we begin to suspect that the duke killed his wife out of baseless jealousy. You can see this concept of the “unreliable narrator” all over the place, from music (Operator by Jim Croce) to movies (The Usual Suspects by Christoher McQuarrie) to books (I Am Not a Serial Killer by…me). The ability to tell one story, while suggesting multiple layers of truth underneath it, is one of the reasons I love writing.

One of the many books in my parent’s library was a collection of poems that I read several times as a child, and through which I discovered the romantic poets: Lord Byron, Lord Tennyson, William Blake, and John Keats. I love almost everything they ever wrote, from the heartwarming (Byron’s Epitaph to a Dog) to the horrifying (Byron’s Darkness); from extended narrative (Keats’s The Eve of St. Agnes) to pure imagery (Keats’s To Autumn). I also discovered more modern poets, like Langston Hughes and ee cummings and T.S. Eliot; Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is probably my favorite piece of writing ever.

Somewhere in the middle there is Emily Dickinson, who I used to like until I realized that you can sing every poem she ever wrote to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas. Try it: “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me. The carriage held but just ourselves, and Immortality.” And now I apologize for telling you that, because it will ruin Dickinson for you completely. It took me years to get over it, but I’ve finally re-convinced myself of how awesome she is.

When I was in eighth grade we were in the midst of the first Gulf War, and my English teacher compiled an incredible little pamphlet of poetry about war, death, and loss. I still have it, and I consider it one of the highlights of my education. It included everything from the ubiquitous The Second Coming by Yeats and Ozymandias by Shelley (proof that Shelley is not the total hack I sometimes accuse him being), through the funereal The Dark Hills by Robinson, to such horrifying poems as Death of a Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell, or Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen. These poems taught me that poetry was not all happy, and that the grotesque could hold its own kind of beauty.

So who is my favorite poet? Eliot’s a contender, based solely on the strength of Prufrock; Milne is up there, too, and Keats, but the crowned champion is actually one I stumbled on by accident. I’ve never studied her poetry in any English class, or seen it printed in any academic anthology, but my favorite poet is Emily Bronte, hands down. Most people know her for Wuthering Heights, which is dark and seething, and her poetry is very similar: she’s a little low on technical skill, but with a vast well of raw talent just roiling violently under the surface. I believe in a life after this, where we will be reunited with those who have gone before, and one of the very first people I want to meet is Emily Bronte—I’m going to get her, John Wilkes Booth, and Philip K. Dick into a room and just talk for hours. And then we’re going to go find William Carlos Williams and kidney punch him so hard his great grandchildren won’t be able to eat for a week.

One of the questions I get a lot is “how can I become a better writer?” and my answer is simple: “If you want to learn how to tell stories, study fiction. If you want to learn how to use words, study poetry.” The skills and principles of language you learn from poetry will improve every aspect of your writing, and when you learn how to evoke image and emotion as powerfully as, for example, Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro, no force on Earth will stop you from getting published.

This week I’m going to leave you with some homework—a reading list—and, being a horror writer, I’m going to choose some of my favorite “dark” poems. Read them, ponder them, and post your comments.

Darkness, Lord Byron
Elegy, Chidiock Tichborne
Isabella, or, The Pot of Basil, John Keats
Suicide’s Note, Langston Hughes
At Castlewood, Emily Bronte
A Day in the Life, Lennon/McCartney (Yes, it totally counts)

Friday, 13 March 2009

My Favorite Movies - Dan Wells

Lists of favorites are always so hard to pin down—I really love X, but do I love it more than Y? Do I need to? It’s hard (and probably meaningless) to really start ranking movies in terms of absolute favoriteness, but there are some movies I love so much that I feel comfortable putting them in an unranked top five. This list will probably change multiple times throughout my life, but for now these are my favorite movies:

Jaws, Steven Spielberg
Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock
Annie Hall, Woody Allen
Mary Poppins, Robert Stevenson
The Searchers, John Ford

Jaws, Steven Spielberg
I say these are in no particular order, but this one is my favorite. A few years ago I realized that I’d seen Jaws more times than I’d seen any other movie, and being curious and over-analytical I started to wonder why I sought it out so much, and so subconsciously. The conclusion I came to is that it is simply some of the best storytelling and characterization I have ever seen anywhere. When people ask me how to build suspense, I point them at Jaws; when people ask me how to make human characters, I point them at Jaws; when people ask me how to blend drama and humor and terror and triumph, I point them at Jaws. I could write pages and pages on all the things I love about that movie, but just trust me: go out and watch it.

Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock
When I set out to write I Am Not a Serial Killer, a friend told me “the hardest part is going to be your main character—readers will have to identify with him even when he does bad things.” He was absolutely right, and the problem of anti-hero empathy became the core of the book. When I set out to solve that problem, I went straight to the master: Psycho. Today most of us know that this is a movie about a crazy killer, but back when it first came out that was a secret, and Hitchcock took his sweet time revealing that. Instead he started with a different story altogether, showing a woman caught up in a crime; you get invested in her and in her story, and you follow her as she tries to hide, and it goes on for a long, long time, and then all of a sudden she’s dead, and poor Norman Bates has to clean up his mother’s mess. He doesn’t want the police to come after his mother, so he decides to hide her crime instead by putting the body in a car and sinking it in a swamp. He pushes it in, watches it sink, and it stops halfway; he watches it nervously, scared to death of being discovered, and then with a groan it sinks in the rest of the way. Instantly, in that one scene—in that one look of fear—you in the audience have switched gears: you’re completely invested in Norman now, and from that moment on the movie is completely his. There are tons of other things to love about the movie, but that one scene has taught me so much about fear, emotion, and identification. One warning: Psycho is nothing at all like modern scary movies, so if you watch expecting a thriller you will be disappointed. Watch it as a character movie, and you’ll love it.

Annie Hall, Woody Allen
Yeah, I know: two scary movies and then Annie Hall? What kind of crazy list is this? Hey, if you don’t like it you can make your own list. These are my favorites. For me, Annie Hall is about two things: it’s about loving people in spite of (and perhaps because of) their flaws, and it’s about talking. The people in this movie talk about everything, no matter where they are or what they’re doing, and sometimes they even step into voiceover and talk about their talking WHILE they’re talking. If you hate talking, this is not the movie for you. The thing is, the people talking are so funny, and so interesting, and so layered with good and bad that they are endlessly fascinating to listen to. So many love stories are about people who are destined to be together, and after one or two obligatory plot problems they live happily after, but Annie Hall shows us real people who try, and fail, and screw up, and change, and stay the same, and fall down, and get up and try again.

Mary Poppins, Robert Stevenson
This one would look a lot weirder on this list without Annie Hall to soften the blow. Why do I love Mary Poppins? For some of the same reasons I love these other movies, actually: because it’s funny, because I love the characters, and because it combines humor and sadness in some wonderful. It also pulls a Psycho-ish twist toward the end, where you suddenly realize (though it’s been there all along) that the movie is not really about what you thought it was about, and it pulls back the curtain and you realize that what you thought was a wacky kids movie is actually one of the most touching movies about fatherhood ever made. And yes, I know that Dick Van Dyke’s cockney accent is terrible, but seriously—get over it. It’s completely overshadowed by all the awesome. If you’ve never seen it, go watch it, and if you have seen it before here’s a neat trick: imagine that singing is a metaphor for emotional connection, and watch it again with new eyes; pay attention to who sings to who, and why, and how. It’s so much deeper than people give it credit for.

The Searchers, John Ford
I just saw this one a few years ago, but it leapt to the top five almost instantly. The Searchers is so much more than just cowboys and Indians: it’s about hatred, racism, obsession, and love. It’s about the painful borders between community and solitude; between doing what you want and doing what has to be done. And holy crap is it beautiful to look at. In some ways, it’s the perfect representation of my favorite archetype: the outsider who tries to help a group of people even though he knows that he will never truly belong. When you think about it, that’s also the subtext of every other movie on this list (Psycho is kind of a stretch, but it still works). It is no mistake that the hero of my book is named John Wayne.

Next week I’m going to change course a bit and talk about the final piece of the “my literary influences” puzzle: poetry.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009


Head to the totally brilliant YA blog Wondrous Reads to check out the first review of I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER...

Friday, 6 March 2009

My Favorite Books (at least for now) - Dan Wells

Last week I talked about the books I read growing up, and how they shaped my reading and writing tastes. Today I’m going to talk about the five “Favorite Books” listed in my bio on my website, www.fearfulsymmetry.net:

Dune, Frank Herbert
Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
Perfume, Patrick Suskind
American Gods, Neil Gaiman
Taran Wanderer, Lloyd Alexander

Dune, Frank Herbert
I have read Dune more times than any other book. It’s a brilliant blend of SF, fantasy, politics, ecology, and military strategy. I love the world Herbert created—not just the planet of Arrakis, but the entire universe of feudal lords, semi-human space pilots, mystical witches, and giant sandworms. The Butlerian Jihad, outlawing all thinking machines, was a masterstroke, and really gives the book (and the rest of the series) a unique flavor. What I like most about Dune, though, is the intrigue; every scene, every sentence, every word in the book is rich with layer after layer of schemes, counter schemes, and plots within plots. The dinner party when Paul’s family first arrives on Arrakis is one of the tensest, most fascinating scenes I’ve ever read—and it’s a dinner party, for crying out loud! My favorite scene in the book is Feyd’s knife fight in the Harkonnen arena, where every attack, every step, every choice is part of a complex plot (or plots) to gain, shift, or consolidate power. It’s an absolutely stunning book.

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
I read Les Miserables because, like most people who read it these days, I heard the musical and thought it was kind of cool. I was in high school at the time, on summer break with nothing else to read, so I decided to take a shot at the unabridged version; people warned me against it, telling tales of gigantic tangents and non-fiction essays, but I was undaunted. I made the right choice. The unabridged Les Miserables is an epic so vast and so…well, epic, that it has become the measuring stick against which I compare any other epic I read. What I love about it is the vast range of human emotion and experience—the book contains some of the most vile, depraved people in all of literature, right next to some of the best and most righteous, and includes the full spectrum between. In some cases, people will actually move from one category to the other, and because the book slows down and takes its time you can really feel the transition. And I loved the wacky tangents: the section on quicksand was harrowing; the detailed description of Waterloo was a gruesome depiction of hell on Earth; and even the essay on sewer systems was a joy to read, believe it or not, simply because Hugo’s mastery of language makes anything worth reading, regardless of topic. Obviously this will depend on the skill of your translation (I did not read the original French), but find a good one and give it a shot.

Perfume, Patrick Suskind
Another book I read in translation, Perfume is the only horror-ish book on the list. It’s the story of a man in 18th century France who has no human emotion whatsoever, but possesses instead the most incredible sense of smell ever seen in human history. This premise establishes not only a tense thriller but a fascinating historical novel with an uncanny power for descriptive language. Jean-Baptiste, the “hero,” becomes a perfumer obsessed with capturing the scents of beautiful women, and as he plots and murders his way through French society he describes the various smells so perfectly that you can almost smell them, right in your room reading them. It’s phenomenal on many levels.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman
Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, and American Gods is my favorite of his books. It’s the ultimate story of immigration, and as such becomes the ultimate story of America itself; these are not all-powerful deities, but strangers in a strange land doing their best to survive. The great demon Chernobog lives in a brownstone apartment with the Three Sisters (one of Gaiman’s favorite archetypes), eating cabbage and playing checkers. The god of the Internet eats at McDonalds, and burns his fingers on the hot apple pie. More than anything else this book is about setting—it’s about the simple lives of everyday Americans, mortal or otherwise, simply trying to get by the best they can. It’s also a wonderful love story and a grand-scale con job. American Gods is Gaiman’s most awarded book, but it deserves it all.

Taran Wanderer, Lloyd Alexander
When I grew up reading fantasy, it was all about dragons and heroes and wars and all the other stuff that little boys love. So when I got to book 4 of the Prydain Chronicles, Taran Wanderer, I didn’t know what to make of it—instead of high adventure the small, weather-beaten story of a young man trying to become an adult. There’s a line early in the book, spoken by one of the witches, which establishes the whole thing (I paraphrase): “The little chicken wants to soar with the eagles, but first let’s see if he can scratch for his own worms.” In other words, growing up and becoming a useful, responsible person is not only more important, but far more difficult, than slaying a dragon and saving a kingdom. The villain Taran faces is not an evil wizard but an arrogant jerk, and he defeats him not with an ancient sword of power but with an ugly, sturdy sword that he made himself. In everything I write, and in everything I do, I try to remember the lessons I learned from this book: that a hero must first be a person, and that the most important challenges are usually the most personal.

Next week we'll take a similar look at my favorite movies.