Brown River Queen cover art

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Dispatches From the 8th Annual Oxford Film Festival

I was out past ten o'clock last night.  If you knew my habits, which are generally those of any 80-something retiree, you'd know that was news.

Oxford is holding its annual film festival this weekend.  We managed to catch several indie films, and while I don't have time to talk about them all, one does stand out.

It's a short called Pillow.  It contains less than a dozen words of dialog, all spoken by a character who never appears onscreen.  It's a twisted little tale -- devoted but dimwitted sons, monstrous mother, and a quest for a pillow as soft (literally) as an angel's wing, set in a nameless corner of the Depression-era South.  Deliciously cruel and inventive.

The documentary 'Mississippi Innocence' is easily the most powerful factual entry in the festival.  It's the heartbreaking true story of police and judicial incompetence in present-day Noxubee County, and the years-long struggle by the Innocence Project to set two blameless men free after they were railroaded by courts eager for a conviction, never mind the facts.

More later!  

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Unwriting Life

It is said that Tragedy is most often found on the heels of Triumph.

Nah.  I made that up, just now.  But it should be said, because in my experience it's true.

Take my triumphant completion of The Bonnie Bell, for instance.  I crowed about it in these very pages.  I even named a blog after the word count, which in retrospect wasn't a very smart thing to do, because that very word count came quickly back to haunt me.

The Bonnie Bell weighed in at a somewhat overfed 128,000 words.  Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with a novel being 128,000 words long.

Unless one's publisher has a firm 120,000 word upper length limit.


So eight thousand words had to go.

I've known a few writers who would have balked at the very idea of cutting 8K out of a finished novel.  What of my vision, they would cry.  What of my artistic integrity?  What of my soul?

What of my bank account, quoth I.

I'm not one of those artsy guys.  If eight thousand words have to go, they have to go.

So I began the process I call unwriting.

Writing is easy.  You put words together so they bring the movie in your head to life.

Unwriting is harder.  You want to keep the scenes intact.  You want the flavor, the mood, the feeling of the words to remain intact.

But you've got to go into the text and make words disappear.  And you've got to do that without ruining the images and feelings they evoke.

It's like playing Jenga.  You've got a precarious, leaning tower of words.  Each word touches the others.  Removing even one is tricky.

Removing eight thousand is tricky indeed.

But that's what I get paid for.  And even my ego recognizes that if words I wrote can be removed without harming the work, then they should be removed, because they aren't vital.  And if they aren't vital, then they're just loafing around, and that's no way to write a novel.

So I'm unwriting.  Reading the thing aloud, listening for awkwardness.  Slashing when I hear it.  Tightening.  Tweaking.  Surgically removing dead tissue.

When I'm done, The Bonnie Bell will be leaner, meaner, faster, stronger.  And better. Much better.

It's back to the delete key for me.  I think it snowed earlier.  White cold stuff, that's snow, right?

No matter.  Back to unwriting!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Like most writers, I've worked some unusual jobs.

Back in the 1980s -- yeah, I was of working age back then, but if any of you kids write in asking if I ever met Lincoln or what we did before radio, I'll drive to your house and smack you in the noggin -- I did shift work.  Graveyard shifts, mostly.

I met some fascinating people doing that.  There was Tom Yancy, who went on to become a Washington journalist.  Worked the White House Press Corps.  Tom commanded the quickest wit I've ever encountered, but he was kind soul and a hard worker.

We used to tune an AM radio to New Orleans radio talk shows while we burst and decollated all the computer-printed forms we generated during the night.  Most of the programs featured preachers -- not the cadaverous, monotonous lot we have around here, but flamboyant New Orleans late-night radio preachers to whom saving souls was a distant second in priority to selling their Hoodoo Bags and Magic Money Hands.

Those nights I spent running endless reams of paper through hungry bursters and listening to Tom critique charlatan hoodoo men were absolute comedy gold.  Of course, I didn't know that then.  I held it to be the worst sort of drudgery.  I was a man, you understand, bound for bigger and better things.

Fast forward a decade or two.

Tom passed a few years ago, far too soon.  He'd known he'd die young.  He even talked about dying, all those nights ago.  I wish he'd been wrong.

And today, I got the news that another of us is gone.  I won't say her name.  The incident which led to her death is all over the news, but they haven't released any names, and I won't either.

She was a nice person.  We all liked her.  And though she was very different from the rest of us misfits, she  laughed with us, worked with us, drank bad coffee and talked the night away with us.

The bursters are gone.  The AM radio too.  That whole room is silent now, and empty.

So, to the valiant members of the dreaded Third Shift, I lift my glass in salute.  Both of you left this world far too soon.

You will be missed.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Live From New York...

If you grew up in the US during the 70s, 80s, or 90s, then you're familiar with the TV show 'Saturday Night Live.'

Back in the day, SNL was the best thing on TV.  Akroyd.  Murray.  Murphy.  Belushi.  And the list of names goes on.

Yeah, the show today isn't what it was, although it does have its moments -- my favorite bits are usually the Andy Samburg digital shorts and the opening.  Hearing someone shout 'Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!' is something I've been hearing for lo these many years.  At the end of a long hard week, it's reassuring, on some primal level -- yeah, the world may be falling apart around me, but all that can wait.

It's time for SNL.

This Saturday's guest host was Dana Carvey, former cast member (86 thru 93, I think).  His characters are some of my favorites.  He did Church Chat, Hans and Franz, and of course, Garth from Wayne's World.

The Church Lady and Wayne's World, complete with a cameo by Mike Myers, were featured in Saturday's show.  I loved seeing the bits again -- until I realized just how many years have passed since they were fresh and new.

Can I really be that freaking old?

Surely there's been some mistake.

But while I check my records in a doomed attempt to establish my current age at 27, here's a link for you to enjoy.  It's my favorite Andy Samburg digital short.  Enjoy!

Andy Samburg's 'Gonna be a Great Day' video