Of Doubts, Questions . . . and Lost Weekends

It was the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to showcase his talents as he never had before.  But there was one big problem.  He rarely drank, didn’t know the first thing about being addicted to the bottle.

bottlebeginning

 

So how was he going to play an alcoholic in anything resembling a convincing manner?

These were the questions swirling through the mind of Ray Milland as he studied a novel sent to him personally by the head of Paramount Pictures.  The powers-that-be wanted to adapt the novel, written by Charles R. Jackson, into a film and have Milland play the lead role of Don Birnam, a writer whose life and career are in shambles, swamped under the heavy, unrelenting pressures of alcoholism.

millandbeginning

 

Milland hesitated.  How would he be able to master the role of the haunted Birnam?  Aside from his complete lack of understanding and firsthand knowledge of alcoholism, Milland also questioned his own acting ability.  He had been a leading man in films for nearly a decade, but didn’t consider himself to be on par with the true icons of the Silver Screen, legends such as Cary Grant, Clark Gable, James Stewart, and others.  He was a serviceable actor, a veteran, but could he pull something like this off?  No doubt the bad memories from his first Hollywood experience, fifteen years earlier, when the director berated him in front of the entire cast and crew for his amateurish and clumsy acting, were alive and playing over and over in his mind, like a movie reel gone out of control.  But despite the doubts, the nagging insecurity that wouldn’t let go, Milland took the role.

He would play the lead part in The Lost Weekend.

thelostweekend

 

**********************

Have you ever faced a similar circumstance?  Maybe it was the looming specter of a job interview, the second guessing prior to hitting the Publish button on a blog post or taking the final step to release your new book on Amazon.  Maybe it was the jitters before a first date or the unrelenting self-doubt before standing up in front of your supervisors and fellow coworkers to deliver a major company presentation.

weveallbeentheredoubtfear

 

It’s fair to say we’ve all been there.

I know I have.  I’ve felt Milland-like doubts and insecurities more times than I can count.  And, sad to admit, but there have certainly been instances when, dogged with what-ifs and self-recriminations, I backed down, failed to take the challenge, and let an opportunity pass.

One moment that immediately comes to mind took place in eighth-grade Algebra.  On the surface, it was a small thing, trivial, really, but it has stayed with me all these years.  The teacher, a blond guy with a big, beefy mustache named Mr. Edwards, presented the class with a complex mathematical problem.  “Don’t try to solve it here in class,” he warned.  “It’ll take way too long.”  He asked us to tackle the mind-bender at home that night–not for extra points, not for a grade.  Just for fun.  Old-fashioned algebraic fun.  I can’t remember the specifics of the problem.  All I can remember is that it was a rambling thing, meandering on like a twisting trail that snakes its way ever deeper into the woods.  And as I set out to solve the problem that night, that’s exactly where I felt I was heading–into some dark, uncharted territory, overrun with wild vegetation and exotic creatures never before encountered.  But I stuck with it, and, well over an hour later, came up with an answer.

algebraproblem

 

The thing was–the answer seemed ludicrous.  Again, memory fails, but it was something like: three-hundred-ten trillion, two-hundred-twenty-one billion, thirteen million, two-hundred thousand and eighty-three.  It was some ridiculous number that trailed on across half the width of my notebook page.  I didn’t understand.  I had worked so hard on it, and this was the nonsensical answer I came up with?  I reviewed my work, couldn’t find an error, but was convinced I must have made one.  No way was the answer anything close to that outrageous number.

verylargenumber

 

Fast-forward to the next day, and sure enough, old Mr. Edwards asked the class straightaway for the answer to his math problem.  No one raised their hand.  I wanted to, and I nearly did.  But all I could think of were the laughs and snickers that would result from the class, and the wide-eyed, glazed-over stare on Mr. Edwards’s face when I gave my mouthful of an answer.  So I just sat there, waiting.

Mr. Edwards smiled, as he often did, and wrote the correct answer on the blackboard.

No, I thought,  It can’t be.  But it was.

It was the precise answer I had come up with the night before.  I wanted to raise my hand then and say, “Wait!  I had that!  Really, I did!”  But it was too late.  The opportunity had come and gone.

regretiknewtheanswer

 

I wish I could say I learned my lesson so well that day that nothing of the sort ever happened again.  The truth is, nearly every time I publish a blog post, see a new review on Amazon for The Eye-Dancers, or share my work with anyone, anytime, any place, I feel the same old butterflies.  Maybe that’s a good thing, in its own way.  Maybe it keeps me on my toes.

butterflies

 

Certainly I have been beset by doubts galore concerning the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  It is a project three years running now, with more stops and starts than a rain-hampered tennis match at Wimbledon and enough revisions and rewrites to make my head spin, and even as I close in on the stretch run, preparing to finish the first draft in the months ahead, I am nagged with questions.

wimbledonrain

 

Do the various plot points intersect and come together?  There are so many threads to the story–is it too complex, too convoluted?  Or will it read as one unified whole?  Are the characters’ motivations ringing true?  Are all the story arcs rising and falling in optimal fashion, or are things progressing without rhyme or reason?  In a nutshell, is this thing any good?

convoluted

 

The questions rarely, if ever, fall silent, the insecurities are always there.  All I can do–all any of us can do–is continue to move forward and choose to believe.

********************

When The Lost Weekend was released in the theater, the reception was positive, from audiences and critics alike.  It proved to be a groundbreaking motion picture, particularly in the manner in which it portrayed alcoholism in a frank, uncompromising, and serious light.  No film had tackled the issue in such a way before, and The Lost Weekend would inspire other movies to follow suit in the years to come.

At Oscar time, The Lost Weekend won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

And Ray Milland?  The gentleman who doubted his ability to play the lead role?

millandacademyaward

 

He won the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Evidently, not all lost projects or assignments or challenges or weekends are really lost, after all.

nolostweekendsafterall

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

 

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (in St. Louis or Anywhere)!

There are magical moments in movies, in stories, in life–they become frozen in time, as it were, there to be captured, and recaptured, like old friends always ready to greet us with a hug and a smile.

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There are, for example, signature moments I can recall from my past–memories, highlights, experiences that remain vivid and true, though decades may have elapsed. All I have to do is close my eyes, remember, and I am transported back, across a chasm of time and distance, as if by magic.

timetravel

 

Favorite scenes in books, movies, television shows offer a comforting helping hand, as well, only in this case, you don’t need to remember anything.  You can reread a favorite passage, rewatch a favorite scene–experiencing anew the special bond these creations share with you.

specialbonds

 

For me, one such movie is Meet Me in St. Louis, which hit the theaters in 1944 and starred Judy Garland, just five years removed from her signature role of Dorothy Gale, in The Wizard of Oz.  In Meet Me in St. Louis, a period piece, Garland portrays Esther Smith, against the backdrop of the 1904 World’s Fair.  Though much of the movie takes place in warmer months, I will always view Meet Me in St. Louis as a Christmas classic.

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I’ve always enjoyed old movies.  Even as a kid, I’d happily tune in to old black-and-white classics, films from yesteryear, featuring larger-than-life icons like Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Katharine Hepburn.  So it was no surprise, one snowy December night, when I was fourteen years old, that I was watching Siskel and Ebert.  I used to watch their show every week back in the day, enjoying their analysis, their banter, their arguments.  But on this night, on the eve of the yuletide, they closed their program by showing a clip from Meet Me in St. Louis.

siskelandebert

 

“Here’s Judy Garland singing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,'” Gene Siskel announced–and instantly I entered into a story, a set of characters, a movie I had never seen or experienced.  But none of that mattered, because when I watched that clip–Garland’s character singing one of my favorite holiday songs to Margaret O’Brien, who plays her little sister in the film–it made no difference that I didn’t know the context of the scene or how it interacted with the overall flow of the film.

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All that mattered was a magical performance, a holiday classic, a song and a scene that transcended its WWII-era audience and, somehow, managed to speak to me, a teenager in western New York State, born decades after the movie was filmed.

speaktomedecadeslater

 

And today, more than seventy years after Judy Garland sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on the Silver Screen, may the song’s spirit and sentiment reach everyone this holiday season.

“Let your heart be light,” and may your “troubles . . . be out of sight . . . as in olden days, happy golden days of yore; faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more.”

Wishing all of you a happy and joyous holiday, and a blessed and merry New Year.

endofpost

 

See you all in 2016!

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

From Frost to Thor, with a Cup of Hot Cocoa (Or, the Literary Dualism of a New England Stick Season)

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live year-round in balmy, gentle conditions, where palm trees sway in midwinter and heavy, insulated coats are strange accoutrements only seen on television.  I’ve never experienced anything like that–not even close.  I grew up in Rochester, in upstate New York, famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for its long winters and the lake-effect snow machine that produces blizzards and white-outs with alarming regularity.

blizzard

So, what did I ultimately do?  Move to Southern California, the South of France?  Tahiti?  Not quite.  I moved to Vermont, colder and harsher still than Rochester!  I have no regrets.  Vermont is a rural gem, a rugged little state tucked away in the far northwest corner of New England.  It’s one of the most beautiful places you will ever see.  It is also, to put it mildly, a land of extremes.  Few locales on earth experience such robust, exaggerated seasons–there is nothing subtle about the weather in New England.  The region, according to Henry Cabot Lodge so many years ago, yet still as appropriate today as when he proclaimed it, “has a harsh climate, a barren soil, [and] a rough and stormy coast.”

necoast

And yet . . . there is one time of year in New England that is more subdued, nondescript, and soft-spoken, almost shy in its fundamental drabness . . . The month of November, tucked away in hiding for so long, creeps up on the calendar, whisper-quiet, as if inching forward on its tiptoes.  And, once arrived, it has a personality, a starkness, all its own.

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The flowers and blooms of spring are a distant memory, as are the ripe fields, muggy nights, and poolside gatherings of high summer.  October, with its breathtaking, almost narcissistic display of reds, golds, and oranges, is still fresh in the mind’s eye, but it’s a brief performance, a limited run.  The hillsides, afire with splashes of color only a fortnight ago, now lay stripped, with row on row of gray tree trunks and skeletal limbs reaching for the cold, late-autumn sky.

stickseason

So, yes.  In many ways, November (what the locals sometimes refer to as “stick season” around here) is a somber, even depressive month.  The days grow successively shorter, colder, as the interminable New England winter approaches. There is a stillness to the land, a sharp crispness to the air, and all too often a succession of leaden-sky days with low-lying clouds hovering like bruises over the earth.

There is also, at least for me, a sense of slowing down, of stepping back, looking over the bare, windswept terrain and pausing for reflection.

It’s easy to see, walking along a Vermont country road littered with the desiccated harvest of fallen October leaves, or climbing a knoll and looking out at the ancient, rounded spine of the Green Mountains, how this area has served as an inspiration for some of the world’s great writers and poets.  Something in the rocky soil, the rugged, unyielding terrain, the windswept contours of a rolling New England field in the fall instills a serious quality to an author’s prose, or a poet’s verses.  Frost, Emerson, Thoreau, Plath, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Dickinson . . . the list goes on and on.  Surely, there is something special about this place.

plathariel

 

emersonessays

I feel it throughout the year, but at no point does it affect me more than the month of November.  November brings out the serious and the brooding in my writing, makes me want to try my hand at poetry (a proclivity I rarely feel over the course of the eleven other months) and pen an introspective novel, light on the action and saturated with layered themes, obscure symbols, and tortured, existential characters.  I want to reach, pursue, challenge myself to write about the subterranean undercurrents of life, raging beneath the surface, often hidden beneath a civilized and well-practiced facade.  I want to produce art, works that inspire and examine, question and illuminate.

existentialart

Worthy aspirations, all, but sometimes, when unchecked, they can become an albatross, long-winged and sharp-beaked, weighing me down, choking off my airflow.  I appreciate the masters of the craft and serious literature as much as anyone, and hope a small smattering of my own output can be labeled “literary,” but at the same time, at least for me, there is an element even more important than the profound, more essential than the sublime.

albatross

Thankfully, the month of November also speaks to this lighter aspect.

I find November, with its protracted evenings and roaring, crackling hearth fires and frost-covered windows, to be one of the coziest times of the year.  There are few treats I enjoy more on a cold fall night than preparing a mug of hot chocolate, maybe popping a generous portion of popcorn, and settling in to watch an old black-and-white classic–nothing extraordinary, not necessarily an Oscar- or Emmy-winning masterpiece, but rather something fun, silly even.  Perhaps I’ll binge-watch episodes of The Honeymooners, or tune in to a corny old sci-fi movie with bug-eyed monsters, mutated spiders, or ever-expanding gelatinous blobs from outer space.

theblob

Other times, I’ll dig into my vintage comic book collection, perhaps pulling out a science-fiction title from the 1950s like Strange Adventures or Mystery in Space.  If I’m feeling more superhero-minded, maybe I’ll flip through an old issue of Journey into Mystery with the Mighty Thor or, Mitchell Brant‘s favorite, The Fantastic Four.  Whichever choice I make, a classic sitcom; a cliched but riveting movie produced decades ago, short on character but high on smiles; or a vintage comic complete with nostalgic ads and the musty, old smell all comic book collectors know and love, I’m just glad that Old Man November, with all its grays and dark, wistful sighs, has its lighter side to help me keep things in balance.

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It’s a noble thing, a calling, really, for artists and writers and creative souls the world over to want to imbue their work with meaning and thoughts, words, and images that move their audience from tears to laughter and back again.  It’s something every serious artist should have, and cultivate.  But if our creative process isn’t also fun, if we don’t love what we do, that, too, will be reflected in the final output.

“Write only what you love,” Ray Bradbury once said, “and love what you write.  The key word is love.  You have to get up in the morning and write something you love.”

lovewhatyouwrite

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with some hot cocoa, freshly popped popcorn, and a legion of telepathic crab monsters.

attackcrabmonsters

Thanks so much reading!

–Mike

A Step-by-Step Journey–Or, Words of Wisdom from a Fictional Minor-League Catcher

In the 1988 romantic comedy Bull Durham, there is one sequence when veteran minor-league catcher Crash Davis pulls aside the young pitching phenom Nuke LaLoosh to offer words of advice.  Davis knows talent when he sees it, and he knows that LaLoosh is headed, ultimately, for the Major Leagues.  Though raw, and with much to learn, the young pitcher has a golden arm, blessed with a rocket-like fastball and an off-the-table curve.  He has future superstar written all over him.

aloosh

 

But he’s arrogant, hot-tempered, immature, and, Davis is sure, not at all prepared to handle the fishbowl lifestyle of the Major Leagues.  And so on a road trip, as their minor-league team, the Durham Bulls, gears up for a new opponent, Davis instructs LaLoosh on the fine art of the interview.

crashdavis

 

“You’re gonna have to learn your cliches,” he says.  “You’re gonna have to study them.  You’re gonna have to know them.  They’re your friends.  Write this down: ‘We gotta play it one day at a time.'”

As LaLoosh does indeed write this down, he says, “‘Got to play’ . . . it’s pretty boring.”

Davis is quick to respond:  “‘Course it’s boring, that’s the point.  Write it down.”

durhaminterview

 

He provides two other canned responses to interview questions, as well, both as cliched and dull as the first.  Indeed–how many times have we heard this oft-repeated phrase:  “One day at a time; one game at a time . . .”

“So, are you looking forward to playing the Yankees next month?”

“Next month?  Next month?  This is this month!  We’re not even thinking of the Yankees.  Who are they?  We gotta take this one game at a time.  If we start looking ahead to next month, the series against the Yankees won’t even matter because we’ll have lost the next few anyway.”

onegameatatime

 

It’s frustrating for the interviewer and the audience alike.  We listen to this, and think, “Can’t they ever be honest?  Of course they look ahead.  They have to.  Anybody would.”

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But maybe, just maybe, it’s not always just a tired cliche.  Maybe sometimes, they’re actually telling the truth.

**********************

Have you ever been there?  You’re writing a novel, or a memoir, or any long work of literature, and you know that just down the road, perhaps as near as the next chapter, a major development beckons.  The protagonist will face a monumental challenge, a huge shift in the plot will occur, perhaps someone instrumental to the story will die.  Regardless of the specifics, it is a crucial development, one of the most important sequences of the entire work.

majordevelopmentcrossroads

 

But it’s not the chapter you’re working on . . .

Speaking of, the chapter you are working on is relatively minor.  There are no groundbreaking events, no epiphanies or “aha” moments, no twists and turns that will create a sea change for the rest of the story.  It’s a quiet chapter, understated, a small hors d’oeuvre before the meal is served, an undercard to kick off an evening where everyone in the audience is breathlessly awaiting the main event.

horsdeouevres

 

When I wrote The Eye-Dancers,  there were certainly moments just like this.  There is a short chapter where Ryan Swinton walks off from the group, needing some space to think and reflect.  Later on, toward the climax of the novel, Marc Kuslanski has a similar conversation with himself, exploring the troubling reality of paradoxes, that not everything can be rationally and neatly explained.

paradox

 

It’s precisely at such times as these that Crash Davis’s advice to his young teammate most applies.  Because–if we rush through the little scenes, the reflective and subdued chapters, if we slap them together without much effort out of sheer impatience to move forward, it won’t even matter what that earth-shattering revelation will be in chapter 29, or how our protagonist will manage to survive the dangers at book’s end.  Regardless of how mesmerizing the big scenes are, they are built, in large part, by the “small” chapters and interludes that precede them.

quietmoments

 

I have found that, when writing a novel, the task sometimes seems so large, so daunting–often literally taking years to complete–that it’s dangerous thinking too far ahead.  Granted, there needs to be some sense of direction.  I know, for me, I like to have an idea where I’m going before I begin the first chapter, and at times, during the course of writing the story, if an idea strikes me for a scene several chapters off, I’ll jot it down to make sure I don’t forget it.

ideawritedowndontforget

 

But if I start worrying too much about scenes as yet unwritten, developments around the bend, as it were, if I spend too much time stressing about specifics five or ten chapters hence, then I am in real trouble.  Suddenly the scenes I am working on become harder to write, and I find it more difficult to concentrate on the task at hand.  I may even get bogged down with doubts, wondering if the novel as a whole will be worthwhile or just some disastrous literary flop.

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Indeed, if I am about to begin chapter 17, as I am in the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, even as I write this post, I need to focus exclusively on chapter 17.  Not chapter 18, or chapter 19, or chapter 26.  Even more specific than that, I need to focus on the next word, the next sentence, the next paragraph.  For, when it’s all said and done (a fitting description in a post talking about an old cliche!), a story is indeed built one word at a time, one chapter at a time.

The Yankees next month?  They can wait.

yankees

 

Just ask Crash Davis.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Pausing for a Look–Over the Rainbow

So . . . which scene is it for you?

The tornado sequence, perhaps, filmed in atmospheric black-and-white, and no doubt the cause of countless nightmares for young children throughout the decades?

tornado

 

Or maybe it’s the magical moment when Dorothy first enters Oz, as the monochrome of black-and-white suddenly gives way to a vibrant palette of color.

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Not quite, you say?  Then how about the legendary Wizard of Oz himself being exposed for the fraud he is, hiding behind the curtain?

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But of course, who can forget the Silver Screen’s most iconic villain, The Wicked Witch of the West, melting away?  “I’m melting, I’m melting!” is such a famous line, it has been mimicked and re-created many times over on both stage and screen in the years since.

wickedwitch

 

meltingwitch

 

Indeed.  There are many unforgettable scenes in The Wizard of Oz–arguably the most beloved motion picture in Hollywood history.  There are so many such scenes in the 1939 classic, based on L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, that, at first blush, it may seem impossible to choose just one as a favorite.

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But for me, there is one sequence from the movie that stands apart, not only as my favorite scene in The Wizard of Oz, but one of my favorite scenes of all time, anywhere, from any film or TV show–the “Over the Rainbow” scene, featuring the film’s heroine, Dorothy Gale, and her dog, Toto.  The irony is–the sequence was very nearly removed during the cutting process.

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Perhaps that’s because it doesn’t depict houses flying in the wind, witches soaring through the night on broomsticks, or cowardly lions and tin men and talking, walking scarecrows.

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The “Over the Rainbow” scene occurs just five minutes into the movie.  Studio executive Louis B. Mayer and producer Mervyn LeRoy both thought it should be deleted because, they argued, it “slowed down the picture.”  If not for the sturdy resistance on the part of others associated with The Wizard of Oz, “Over the Rainbow,” the signature song of Judy Garland’s career, most likely would have withered and died.

garlandovertherainbow

 

After Dorothy is unable to get her aunt and uncle to listen to her about an unpleasant run-in she and Toto had (“Find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble,” her aunt snaps), she wanders off into the barnyard, loyal Toto at her side.

dorothyauntem

 

“Some place where there isn’t any trouble,” Dorothy muses.  “Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto?  There must be.  It’s not a place you can get to by a boat, or a train.  It’s far, far away.  Behind the moon, beyond the rain . . .”

And here she begins to sing of a place “over the rainbow way up high,” where all your “troubles melt like lemon drops.”

beginningovertherainbow

 

It must be pointed out that Mayer and LeRoy were right about one thing.  The “Over the Rainbow” sequence does in fact slow the picture down.  I would argue, however, that this effect makes The Wizard of Oz a better movie, and a far more memorable one.

*******************

When the adrenaline rush and creative maelstrom of a novel’s first draft gives way to the laborious and painstaking process of revision and rewriting, we often delete far more than we add.  And that’s the way it should be.  In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King suggests authors should be able to cut at least 10 percent of their total word count from a first draft.  First drafts are generally padded, bloated things, gorged and made fat with too much description, too much repetition, and chock-full of sentences, paragraphs, entire scenes just begging to be tossed into the pit of discarded excess.

firstdraft

 

It’s natural, when trimming the bulging waistline of a first draft, to look for scenes that slow down the action of the story, that seem to lack relevance  or that do not advance the plot.  And most of the time, such scenes should indeed go.  But sometimes . . . yes, sometimes, there are exceptions.

The Eye-Dancers, for example, is a novel told through the point of view of four main characters–Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski–and one of my primary goals when I wrote the story was to enable readers to get into the mind of each character, get to know him, and, hopefully, root for him.  There are several “slower” scenes where the boys talk among themselves or where one of them wanders off by himself to think, ponder over his problems, and try to figure out his place in the universe.

placeintheuniverse

 

While it’s true action sequences and scenes that serve to advance the plot should and do reveal aspects of character, they cannot capture the thoughts, fears, aspirations, dreams a character might have in a quieter moment.  Nor can they portray an everyday scene, where we can witness the characters interacting over events that are mundane and normal as opposed to earth-shattering.  Without such scenes, little islands of stillness amid the roller-coaster ride of action, intrigue, and death-defying chase sequences, we cannot pause long enough to know and like (or dislike, as the case may be) each character over the course of the story.

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***************

When the forward momentum of The Wizard of Oz pauses, just long enough for Dorothy to sing “Over the Rainbow,” we as the viewers are introduced to one of the primary themes of the movie–magic, fantasy, the promise of a place far, far away bursting with color and life and sights to stir and astound the senses.  We get a foreshadowing of Oz itself, of the quest Dorothy and her friends-in-waiting will undertake.

emeraldcityofoz

 

And, perhaps most important of all, we get a glimpse of the girl herself.  We share in her dreams, her wishing upon a star if you will, her ability to see and imagine beyond the nondescript reality of her daily life.

This was not lost on history.  On June 22, 2004, sixty-five years after The Wizard of Oz debuted in theaters and exactly thirty-five years removed from Judy Garland’s death, the American Film Institute voted “Over the Rainbow” as the greatest movie song of all time.

afilist

 

So the next time you’re sweating over the edits of your second draft and are all too eager to cut a scene that does not push the action along, take a breath, read it again, and reconsider.

Maybe, just maybe, the scene in question will transport your readers to a land “heard of once in a lullaby,” where “happy little bluebirds fly.” where the “skies are blue,” and “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”

bluebird

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

No Terror in the Bang

What makes something suspenseful? What are the necessary ingredients that, when mixed together in just the right amounts, at just the right moments, cause us to feel the tension at a visceral level, and make us want to read through the pages at warp speed, desperate to see how it all turns out?

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When asking such a question, who better to turn to than the Master of Suspense himself?

“There is no terror in the bang,”Alfred Hitchcock once said, “only in the anticipation of it.”  Indeed.  In his films, the acclaimed director is not seeking quick, cheap thrills.  He builds tension, slowly, incrementally, a nip here, a prod there . . . we as the audience are left knowing something will happen.  But when?  Where?  In what way?  The buildup has us on the edge of our seats.

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Perhaps no movie embodies this more than Hitchcock’s most controversial work, Psycho.

For many, Psycho will forever be remembered for its shower scene, where the main character of the movie up to that point, Marion Crane, produces cinema’s most famous scream before being brutally murdered in the Bates Motel.

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Released in 1960, Psycho was a landmark, breaking many of Hollywood’s long-standing and previously iron-clad rules.  Never before had moviegoers witnessed such a graphic murder; never before had a star actress been eliminated not even halfway through a film; and, indeed, never before had a toilet been flushed on-screen, as it was shortly before the stabbing.

toilet

 

However, for all that, I would argue that Psycho‘s most effective, and suspenseful, scene occurs just prior to Marion Crane’s shower.

To back up for a moment . . . Marion has just stumbled upon the Bates Motel, well off the beaten path, as she flees from her hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, a large sum of stolen money in her purse.  She is running away, to see her boyfriend, who lives just across the California state line, in debt himself.

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However, driving through a rainstorm on a dark night, Marion’s conscience begins to get the better of her.  We witness her inner struggle, as she wages battle with her personal demons.  We sympathize with her.  We get to know her.

batesmotelatnight

 

And by the time she checks in to the Bates Motel, she wraps the money in a newspaper, fully intent on returning to Phoenix the next day and setting things right. 

stolenmoney

 

But for now, for tonight, she has agreed to have dinner with the motel’s proprietor, Norman Bates, who has invited her to come up to the Gothic mansion that sits on the hill overlooking the motel.

mansion

 

The place is deserted.  The main thoroughfare no longer runs by the Bates Motel, as it once did.  Nowadays, as Norman himself admits, no one ever stops there anymore unless they’ve mistakenly turned off of the new highway.

As Marion, tucked away in her motel room, hides the stolen money, she overhears an argument between Norman and what we (and Marion) assume to be his mother, coming from inside the mansion atop the hill.  Their voices carry on the damp night air.  Mrs. Bates tells him, in no uncertain terms, that the “strange young girl”  is not welcome in her home.   Moments later, Norman sheepishly returns to the motel, a tray of sandwiches and milk in hand.

normanwiththefood

 

Awkwardly, apologizing for his mother’s outburst, he invites Marion to eat in the parlor behind the motel office, since “eating in an office is just too officious.”

As they enter the parlor, Marion notices a collection of stuffed birds hanging on the walls–crows, owls, hawks, assorted birds of prey. She asks Norman about this.

stuffedbirds

 

He shares with her the essentials of taxidermy, but explains he only stuffs birds, nothing else.  “Some people stuff dogs and cats,” he says.  “But I can’t do that.”  He smiles, looking and acting like the boy next door.

normancharming

 

 

normantaxidermy

 

“A man should have a hobby,” Marion says.

He smiles again, says a hobby should pass the time, not fill it.

“Is your time so empty?” she asks him.  “Do you go out with friends?”

He pauses, fidgets.  “Well, a boy’s best friend is his mother.”

At this point, the discussion inevitably shifts toward Norman’s relationship with his mother.  He tells Marion that when his mother yells at him, as she just did, he feels like “cursing her” and “defying her.”  But he knows he can’t.  “She’s ill,” mentally unstable.

When Marion asks him why he doesn’t go away for a while, he shakes his head.

eatslikebird

 

“I couldn’t do that.  Who’d look after her?  She’d be alone up there.  Her fire would go out, and be cold and damp like a grave.  If you love someone, you don’t do that to them even if you hate them. . . . You understand, I don’t hate her.  I hate what she’s become.  I hate the illness.”

“Wouldn’t it be better if you put her . . . someplace?” Marion asks.

Norman’s face suddenly darkens.  Gone is the smile.  He scowls, the stuffed birds behind him watching, lurking.

normanscowl

 

“You mean an institution?” he says.  “A madhouse?  People always call a madhouse ‘someplace,’ don’t they?  ‘Put her in someplace.'”

“I’m sorry,” Marion says, clearly growing nervous.  Norman’s demeanor has undergone a quick 180 since she first sat down.  The kind, almost chivalrous host has left.  In his place there is now a grim, angry alter ego.  “I didn’t mean it to sound uncaring.”

Norman spits out his next words through clenched teeth.  “What do you know about caring?  Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places?  The laughing and the tears, and the cruel eyes staring at you?  My mother there?  But she’s harmless!  She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.”

sheneedsme

 

The camera pans back and forth between the two. Marion is wide-eyed, concerned, realizing she has unintentionally snipped and hacked at a nerve.

marionbecomingconcerned

 

She apologizes again, tells him she meant well.

“People always mean well,” he says, teeth still clenched.  “They cluck their thick tongues oh so very delicately.”  Marion’s expression has now morphed from concern to fear.  What will this man do?

But then Norman sits back, his features softening.  “Of course, I’ve suggested it myself.  But I hate to even think about it.  She needs me.  It’s not as if she were a maniac, a raving thing.  She just goes a little mad sometimes.  We all go a little mad sometimes.”  And now the smile returns . . . “Haven’t you?”

normaninparlor

 

Marion admits that she has, and gets up.  Norman wants her to stay, “just for talk,” but she tells him she’s very tired.  Deferential now, the boyish charm back, he promises to bring her breakfast first thing tomorrow morning.

It is a breakfast that will never be served.  Mere minutes later, Marion is murdered in her shower.

shower

 

*************

Psycho‘s Parlor Scene is a masterpiece in mood, foreshadowing, tension, and, most important of all, character.  In one scene, we witness the many multiple aspects of Norman Bates.  We are charmed by his initial shyness, his polite, impeccable manners, his boyish good looks.

boyishsmile

 

But over the course of the conversation, as the pall of his mother takes over, we are frightened, right along with Marion, at his transformation into an angry, bitter misanthrope.  By the time the scene ends, and he swings back to the smiling boy next door, we can only feel a chill.  The smile no longer seems so innocent.  The kindness no longer feels so pure.  Something terrible lurks just beneath the surface.

lurkingbeneath

 

If the Parlor Scene had never occurred, the murder in the shower still would have stunned and horrified audiences.  But the effect would not have been as profound or memorable, or suspenseful, nor would it have been as earnestly won.  Meeting Norman Bates in the parlor, witnessing the duality of  his character, and watching how it all plays out in his interaction with Marion Crane, the tension builds to a crescendo, taking us further along on this winding, uphill journey into terror.

***************

Certainly The Eye-Dancers is nowhere near as dark or violent as Psycho, but it is, I hope, suspenseful where it needs to be.  It was my goal, when I wrote the novel, to place the main characters under the fictional microscope as it were, so readers would get to know Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski very, very well.

Suspense can be built into any kind of story or situation.  From a death-defying stunt to armed hand-to-hand combat on the one end, to the results of a test score or the outcome of a sporting event on the other.

rollercoastersuspense

 

You don’t need a groundbreaking, horrific shower scene to generate suspense.

You just need engaging, interesting characters and allow your audience the opportunity to get to know them.

insidebrain

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

It’s A Wonderful (Award)

In Frank Capra’s enduring classic It’s A Wonderful Life, some of the most well-known and memorable scenes feature Clarence, the bumbling angel who has yet to earn his wings.  Clarence is assigned the task of trying to help the movie’s hero, George Bailey, realize that his life is worth living.

itsawonderfullife

 

clarenceandgeorge

 

To achieve this, the angel restructures the very fabric of reality, and allows George to see what the world would have been like if he’d never been born.  Clarence’s brainstorm succeeds–and George does indeed come to understand that he’s really had a wonderful life.

lifeworthliving

 

But the ending of It’s A Wonderful Life, while not as fantastic or mind-bending, offers the kind of feel-good (some would say corny) moment Capra became famous for.  Corny or not, it remains one of my all-time favorite scenes.

One of the main reasons George Bailey had been in such dire straits to begin with, and why Clarence the angel’s services were needed, concerns a weighty matter of lost money for the family business–the Bailey Building and Loan.  If George can’t find the money, he will go to jail.

But upon returning home from his extraordinary adventure with Clarence, seeing the bank examiner there ready to deliver the grim news, and hugging his children, thankful to be alive and a real person again, despite the pall hanging over him, George is surprised when his wife, Mary, steps inside and tells him, “It’s a miracle, it’s a miracle!”

cominghome

 

One by one, friends, neighbors, residents of the town stream in after Mary, donating whatever money they can spare to help George pay off his debt.  Within minutes, it becomes clear that, not only will the debt be paid and prison avoided, but, in the words of Harry Bailey, George’s younger brother, George has become “the richest man in town.”

money

 

The kind of community spirit and support depicted in this classic film is, in very real ways, kept alive through the WordPress community.  I can’t thank all of you enough for your ongoing encouragement and support of The Eye-Dancers blog, and for continuing to read and comment on these ramblings of mine. You are the best.

**************

I want to thank Sherri for nominating me for The Shauny Award.  If you’ve never checked out Sherri’s wonderful blog (or even if you have!),  A View From My Summerhouse, I hope you will take a few moments now.  It’s a great place to stop in for a virtual visit, so please take your time!

Before accepting The Shauny Award, I want to thank two other bloggers for recently nominating The Eye-Dancers for two awards–The Sunshine Award and The Dragon’s Loyalty Award.  I was lucky enough to have been nominated for these awards previously, but thanks so much to Dear Kitty. Some blog and to Janice at jemsbooks for the nominations!  After pulling up a chair at Sherri’s blog, I hope you will visit both of these great blogs as well.

I also wanted to take this time to thank Teagan Geneviene.  Teagan was the winner of the recent Eye-Dancers promotion, and she was gracious enough to include me in her fabulous blog, inviting me to participate in her very fun and creative Three Ingredients serial.   Please check out Teagan’s site–you will be glad you did!

And, while you’re at it, I hope you’ll buy her book Atonement, Tennessee, available on Amazon . . .

**************

shaunyaward

The Rules for The Shauny Award  are quite straightforward:

Show Humanity, Show Love, Be Yourself, Don’t Be Others, Don’t Gossip,

and Share the Love by giving This Award to 10 others.

As readers of The Eye-Dancers blog probably already know, I have a penchant for breaking the rules.  (Kind of like the maxim to never, ever split the infinitive, and how the passive voice should be avoided!)

As such, I am going to break the rules again, simple as they are, for The Shauny Award.  Rather than narrowing the nominations to 10, I would like to nominate every single follower of The Eye-Dancers site.  You are the number-one reason blogging is so much fun for me, and I hope all of you will accept this award.

I may not have been about to jump off a bridge, as old George Bailey was in 1946, but when I began The Eye-Dancers blog, I was hesitant, not at all sure how my posts would be received.  From the first, you all made me feel accepted and welcomed, and for that I thank you.

Because of you, It’s A Wonderful Blogging Life.

end

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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