Extra-Terrestrial Mirrors

Our thoughts of life elsewhere tend be skewed toward versions of ourselves.

Face on Mars

                  “Face” on Mars

Crop cirlcle

                   Crop circle in England

Although it’s highly unlikely that whatever is out there will be much like us, the truth is it’s all that we know. Shapely Woman In Funhouse MirrorTo imagine what might be out there, we need to break through to this reflection.Screenshot (215)Only then can we start to picture what might be on the other side.miro39

Ark Research: Lonely Planets

One of the greatest pleasures of writing is in the research. After completing Hawking’s A Brief History of the Universe, I have delved into David Grinspoon’s Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life. Grinspoon’s writing is accessible and colloquial – maybe even too much so – and offers a balanced perspective on what might be out there. Grinspoon007 From DNA’s perspective, all Earth’s creatures are stationary or mobile reproduction units, even those weird brainy, bipedal ones that make fire, print books, and build rockets. All this is in service of the master molecules. We are DNA’s spaceships preparing for launch and trying not to get ourselves killed. (118) DNAWe have been taught that science is largely value-free except for a sense of integrity to the truth. We are supposed to dispassionately interrogate nature and accept the answers, whether we like them or not. yet, in the past, natural philosophers often mixed their spirituality, ethics and values with their science. (256) Galileo-GalileiWhile we explore the planets, we must vigilantly guard against “forward contamination” – the accidental spreading of Earth germs to other planets – and “back contamination” – the accidental spreading of Earth with alien germs. (258)blob_406x250

My new and improved mode of query

I recently attended a writers workshop on crafting the query letter and was amazed at the amount of feedback on what seemed to me a straightforward thing.

my bad side is the story of a woman defined by a moment she can’t remember. Deirdre,orphaned in her infancy, feels haunted by the death of her mother, she and her toddler sister Crystal trapped with the body for days. She fights against the image as she matures, struggling to find her direction and independence.Dee

“Paint a picture,” one instructor insisted. “It’s just like a movie trailer.”

“So it’s a good idea to include character quotes?” A small voice replied (not me).

“No! Don’t do that! That’s bad.”

Now in her 20s, Deirdre studies to be a veterinarian and works at the Pittsburgh Zoo when she comes to own an abandoned exotic cat, Apollo. Deirdre starts a pilot school program, with Apollo as the main attraction, which, although initially successful, leads to a child being bitten and Deirdre having to flee to New York. She moves in with her sister and attempts to reconnect, but finds her immured in alcoholism with her boyfriend, Derek, a fire fighter who lost his company in 9/11, and thus bonds violently with her around their shared traumas. Deirdre becomes isolated and makes a sudden turn from working with abandoned animals to the escort industry and then performance sex. A shooting forces her to leave the city and embark on a journey with Apollo to the barren landscape of Newfoundland where she is forced to confront her fears and loneliness.Newfoundlabrador2010 064

Requirements include: word count, genre, tone and ‘comps’ or comparable works, preferably films.

This 100,000-word work of literary fiction, a cross between Thelma & Louise and Taxi Driver, begins at the moment of the shooting and follows Deirdre in her journey to the north, using flashbacks as a primary structural element. Deirdre’s beauty and eroticism are central themes as well as her realization that, like her sister, she is not in search of understanding so much as is building barriers against what might be next, believing that she has nowhere to turn except within herself.

thelmaI was confused by the comparative aspect, thinking that using film titles wasn’t appropriate in the literary world. I was wrong. “It’s the story. Tell us the story!”

My writing focuses on thought process – akin to James Jones or Cormac McCarthy – capturing moments in a character’s mind while also giving the reader the latitude to bring their own perceptions to the work.

“Who do you think you are comparing yourself to Cormac McCarthy?” The instructor demanded. “That’s a pretty big name, you know.”

Like George Costanza, I didn’t have a good comeback, and now I wish I had been a little quicker. “This is your chance.” (Or is that as bad as “Well, the jerk store called and they’re running out of you“?)Screenshot (198)

After completing my degree in Literature and Film, I moved to Paris to write my first novel and have traveled extensively to enable my development as a novelist.  Most recently, I have taken part in several Unterberg Writing Workshops (2005-09) in New York.

I’ve worked through 30 drafts of this thing now. Another 5 and I might be there.

My Twisted Obsession with Disasters

My obsession with disasters started at a young age when I blew up model airplanes and cars. It was never as satisfying as I expected and always ended with a mess to clean up. The films were better: The Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno and Earthquake, which had Sensurround Sound; I went to that twice. Earthquake-movieI have lost interest in these films for the most part – Twister, Armageddon, 2012 lack the original flarebut remain fascinated by massive destruction. oklahoma-tornado1I gap and ogle. I exchange messages and express my concern; it happens every time, Oklahoma, New Orleans and Japan. Screenshot (194)When Hurricane Sandy came to New York, I walked the dog to see the storm’s surge in Lower Manhattan. IMAG1253I must admit to a habit of walking away from a place – anywhere, a subway train or building – and then looking back, thinking it might explode, be engulfed in smoke and flame. It hasn’t happened yet, but I keep half expecting it. Is this a side effect to my disaster addiction? What is this dreadful fascination? Do I have a sense of doom, an obsession with the impending end? Or is it just boredom in the modern world?

The Oblivion of Science Fiction

Oblivion epitomizes everything about science fiction that makes the genre frustratingly mediocre at best. oblivion_movie_sky_towerThe biggest problem is the complete lack of originality, beginning with the predictable post-apocalyptic setting first seen in Planet of the Apes – the poor old Statue of Liberty buried yet again;planet of the apesa hodge-podge of futuristic themes, combining The Matrix (machines taking over), Total Recall (memory problems) and Moon (clones running the show); moon_sam_rockwell3the inevitable twist (clones/machines who care) derivative of everything from Terminator to Short Circuit; short circuitand the sickeningly silly ending of the vanquished evil mother-ship, reminiscent of Star Wars and everything since. Cowboys-And-Aliens-570x289While there might be a few decent plot reveals, they always turn to disappointment and the endless parade of effects. In the end, it isn’t anything more than a vehicle for Mr. Cruise. tom-cruise-oblivion-stills-released-02Which leads me to the real question: What’s next? Might he be interested in piloting The Ark?

Why I Write…and Teach

I was never the best student; I abhorred being told what to do. And what made matters worse was going to a boys school where I was condemned to wearing a blazer and tie. Most teachers said that I had an attitude, and I suppose I did. And so when I finally graduated, it was like being released from prison. I was free at last.

The one thing I really liked about school was writing. I wrote my first story in Grade 4. I liked the idea of telling a story. And I liked getting it right. My writing was problematic, to say the least, when I was a teenager, but I finally began to get a sense of the narrative in university and then when I started to travel and see the world. My first real moment of literary certitude happened about halfway through writing my first novel – in Paris no less – when Chantal, a character I thought I had expunged from the story, insisted on coming back. She insisted on it, not me. That’s when I knew I might be on to something. IMAG2335After that, I wrote all the time and to pay the bills, took on various jobs – closed caption editor and newspaper columnist. This went on for years. I completed five novels and two screenplays and an assortment of short stories and articles, but nothing was getting published. I thought about getting a real job and decided to try to teach. I liked the idea of working with teenagers. They saw life with wide open eyes. They made me laugh. I wasn’t sure of the profession at first. As much as I enjoyed working with students and leading class discussions, I never felt comfortable in the role of task-master. As well, I didn’t have much of a hankering for the marking – never saw the point in it – and always struggled with the politics of the industry. However the students were the thing. No matter how I felt each morning – whether inspired or completely dull-witted – the first student of the day, that first person to walk into the room, would manage to engage me and the day would just go from there. It was always fun. With teenagers, the cachinnation and merriment were never-ending.

I am still writing. My prose is always improving. I expect to have a novel published soon. But I teach now too, and I like it. I’m starting to think that I should write a book about that.

Query Letter revisited

I am off to a writing conference later this week, focusing on how to write a query letter. I have had many versions of this, including a fictional news story as a central element, but I have settled on the following, for the moment at least:

Dear Agent:

my bad side, a work of literary fiction, is a story of one who has nowhere to turn but against herself. Two sisters, tragically orphaned in their infancy, have felt betrayed throughout their lives. Crystal, now 27, knows that she was borne of trauma and surrenders to alcoholism along with her boyfriend, Derek, a fire fighter who lost his company in 9/11. The younger sister, Deirdre, studying to be a veterinarian, arrives in New York and attempts to reach out to Crystal but drifts off into isolation, her beauty and eroticism leading toward a world immured in sex. A hapless shooting forces Deirdre to leave the city and embark on a harrowing journey to the majestically barren landscape of the north where she confronts the terror and loneliness in herself.

Set in contemporary New York and Newfoundland, a tone of thoughtful desperation pervades the narrative; the characters are real, the dialogue and themes vital. Deirdre tells her story with trenchant intelligence, contrasting her childhood against a present-day spectacle of carnality. Her life, like her sister’s, is revealed as a series of moments not in search of contact and understanding, but in how to build a barrier against what might be next.

My writing focuses on thought process, capturing characters’ words and actions in a moment while also giving the reader the latitude to bring their own perception to the work. This book in particular reflects upon my own distance from the world at large, developing my personal empathy for those who have been isolated and objectified in modern-day society.

Transformation of Toronto Maple Leafs angst

I must admit to feeling pain and distress in regards to my Toronto Maple Leafs. They didn’t just lose; they had a collapse. Transformation of Toronto Maple Leafs angstAhead by two goals with 90 seconds left, the Leafs surrendered twice and another in overtime…all of this after I had received congratulatory texts with minutes to go – why was I receiving congratulatory texts? – after the Leafs were on the verge of their own great comeback. I watched the customary end-of-game handshakes with bitterness and resentment. Transformation of Toronto Maple Leafs angstI had to counter the vitriol from hyper-active friends, impaired supporters of the Canucks, Canadiens and Bruins. I had nightmares. I couldn’t sleep.Transformation of Toronto Maple Leafs angstA dreadful malaise descended. I couldn’t write anything. The only idea I had was a lengthy story on the ennui of a Leafs fan. I was lost in those final minutes, reviewing each mistake, thinking how it might have – should have – been. I knew I had to focus on the things that mattered, the real problems of the world. Transformation of Toronto Maple Leafs angstAnd yet it persisted. After being out of the playoffs for nine years – not winning the cup since 1967 – the Leafs should have won. It was as simple as that. It hung like a cloud, threatening and oppressive. The sports headlines milked the angst. Transformation of Toronto Maple Leafs angstThe players were interviewed as they cleaned out their lockers. The reporters poked and prodded: “How does it feel to fail?” The players stared back and gave their answers. Transformation of Toronto Maple Leafs angstThey acknowledged the pain, the despair. They said that they had learned and wanted to make it right. I watched a few highlights after that.  Transformation of Toronto Maple Leafs angstAnd Canadian superstar-astronaut Chris Hadfield. Transformation of Toronto Maple Leafs angstThen I reflected on an answer from James van Reimsdyk: “We were picked to finish 14th (at the) start of the season. We made the playoffs and pushed a really good team right to the brink. Obviously it’s a step in the right direction.” Transformation of Toronto Maple Leafs angst“But now we got to come back and do it all again next year.”

I was good with that. I thought about writing a treatment for a documentary on the upcoming season, from every point of view, minute to minute, cinema verite of the magnificent climb back. Yes, that was something. I even had a title Go Leafs. That really could work.