Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Horror Hike Inspiration - Doll’s Head Trail

 

Photo Credits: Matt Handle

I’m lucky enough that my holidays tend to be full of relaxation, good food, and family time. So where to find some inspiration for my current creepy work-in-progress novel? This Thanksgiving weekend I decided to find it on a hike along Doll’s Head Trail. Located near downtown Atlanta, this short nature trail is built around a system of man-made ponds known as Constitution Lakes that were once pits for a long defunct brick factory.

The trail isn’t particularly long or difficult nor does the forested terrain stand out from other local nature walks, but what does make this trail so unique and so perfect for my purposes is the loop at the end of the hike. This loop features art made from found materials. Over the years artists have collected trash from around the ponds and created some very creepy tableaus that they have placed along the end of the trail to reward urban explorers. If some of these don’t inspire the dark side of your imagination, I don’t know what will. I hope you enjoy my pics below.














Thursday, November 26, 2020

Giving Thanks in 2020

 

Photo Credit: Jill Wellington at Pixabay

Five years ago I wrote a post giving thanks for the better things that the year 2015 delivered. I didn’t feel the need to write similar posts in the years since, but given how utterly shitty 2020 has been, I thought maybe it was time to do it once more. Focus on the positive, right? As always, I’m most grateful for the health and happiness of my family and friends. With COVID-19 running rampant still, that’s more of a blessing than ever. However I doubt many of you came here to read about me being sappy. You came to read what I thought was worthy of praise this year in world media so that you can either nod your head in agreement or scoff at my complete lack of taste. I take both reactions as a compliment since it means you took the time to read this post! Without further ado...

 

It wasn’t long ago that I bad-mouthed television as a lower form of entertainment, a medium I felt couldn’t hold a candle to film. Times change. Even before the pandemic wiped out theatres this year, TV was delivering fantastic stuff like Westworld, Watchmen, Stranger Things, Narcos: Mexico, Rick and Morty, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Ozark, The Expanse, The Mandalorian, Killing Eve, and Cobra Kai. Now with almost all theatrical releases on hold, television in 2020 was the undisputed champ. My favorite new shows were The Outsider and Lovecraft Country on HBO but three other new shows on my Must Watch list - ZeroZeroZero on Amazon Prime, Raised by Wolves on HBO Max, and Penny Dreadful: City of Angels on Showtime, prove great shows aren’t limited to just one or two networks.

Theatrical releases were minimal of course, but I did find a few worth watching. Family films in the first quarter included Onward, Sonic the Hedgehog, and The Call of the Wild, all of which were entertaining. My favorite film of the year so far was actually released on Netflix rather than the big screen. The Old Guard delivered one the coolest female bad asses ever in Charlize Theron’s Andromache and you can read more about her and the film here. I haven’t gotten a chance to see what I think might wind up being my ultimate favorite film of the year, director Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. The idea of wearing a mask for 2.5 hours in order to see it at the theater just doesn’t appeal to me but it’s slated to hit Redbox as a rental in mid-December and I’ll be one of the first in line to snag it.

As always, I’m behind on my reading. In fact the best book I’ve read so far this year was published in 1939. Not exactly a new release! I’ve been catching up on classic noir and absolutely loved The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. The books published in 2020 that I’m most excited about include the novella collection If It Bleeds by Stephen King, Agency by William Gibson, the continuation of the Avery Cates series in The Burning City by Jeff Somers, and a horror anthology entitled Places We Fear to Tread. The anthology includes stories by Gwendolyn Kiste, Sara Tantlinger, and several more up-and-coming authors who grace my Twitter feed.

And finally my musical tastes still run toward classic rock and 80s pop so the newly released 1973 outtakes “Criss Cross”, “Scarlet”, and “All The Rage” by The Rolling Stones were my favorite surprises, but my kids did help me branch out a bit too. New songs that force me to tap my feet whether I want to or not include “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd, “Say So” by Doja Cat, and “Physical” by Dua Lipa.

Here’s to hoping 2021 is a better year for all of us, filled with many more great films, shows, books, and music. Salud!


Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Writing a Short Story That Will Sell

 

Image Credit: Pixabay


The majority of my blog posts are opinion pieces but I’ve been hesitant to give writing advice, because let’s be honest, who the hell am I to give writing advice? I don’t have an agent. The only novel I have out there on the market, Storm Orphans, was self-published, and the chances you’ve read it are slim. I tend to roll my eyes at so called experts explaining things to me when I’ve never heard of them and/or cannot find a third-party record of their success. That said, I have written and sold my share of short stories. Over the past six years I’ve written around two dozen shorts and sold 15 of them. To be sure, there are more prolific short story writers, more talented short story writers, and more prestigious magazines than the ones I have been published in, but I do know something of the topic I am about to write. So with all that said if you’re new to writing and/or selling short stories I hope the advice below offers some assistance.

Avoid clichés

There are a million story ideas you might come up with, but some of them have already been done a million times. Editors know this better than anyone. They’ve had to slog through those same/similar stories again and again. Boring! Editors want something unique. They want a new spin on that old tale, something that will intrigue the audience. Not sure which stories are particularly stale? Strange Horizons provides a handy list of Don’ts for those of you who write sci-fi or horror. I bet you can find similar lists on other leading literary sites.

 

Hook them early

The first two sentences of your story often make or break you. Editors’ slush piles tend to be large so their patience is often limited. If you make them wade through paragraphs of exposition before they get to the good stuff, chances are, they’ll pass on your story. Furthermore, many sites only provide a sentence or two of preview on the main page, hiding the rest of the story behind a link in order to make the best use of valuable site real estate. So even if the site purchases your story, if your first sentence or two doesn’t hook the reader, guess what? The reader never clicks the link to read the rest of the story. Want some examples of some great opening hooks? Try this one and several of these.

 

Create a story arc

Every short story, whether it’s a 10,000 word tale or nano fiction needs a solid plot and/or a character that changes. I wrote about this in more detail recently here. In short, entropy = death. Short stories aren’t just scenes, but tales that need a beginning, a middle, and an end. The reader needs to be taken on a journey of some sort. It doesn’t matter how interesting your setting or character is if nothing happens to engage the reader.

 

Stick the landing

Okay, you’ve chosen an interesting story to tell; it’s got a strong opening to get the reader’s attention, and it includes an arc from beginning to end. What’s left? You need an ending that’s at least somewhat unpredictable and more important, one that’s memorable. The best stories make us think and stick with us long after we’re done reading them. If the reader sees the ending coming long before it arrives, it won’t pack much of a punch. If the ending feels too much like an ending the reader has read before in other stories, same result. Want an example of a perfect 10 landing? Try The Egg by Andy Weir.

 

Know the market

Finally, your story is done. You’ve written it, edited it, reread it more times than you care to admit, and it checks all the boxes above. Now you want to sell it, but how? You need to research paying markets, make yourself a list, and become familiar with what they're looking for. Submit often and don’t get discouraged by rejection. We ALL get rejected. One of my stories was rejected 17 times before I found a buyer. Keep trying. I keep three separate lists on my hard drive, horror, sci-fi, and literary. I update them monthly as sites are born and die. To start your own lists, I recommend beginning your research with The Grinder for a wide variety of markets and Dark Markets which focuses specifically on horror.

 

Good luck and if you have questions, feel free to post them below in the Comments section!


Monday, July 27, 2020

The Best Live Film Adaptations of Comic Books

Photo Credit: Pixabay


With the conclusion of this past weekend’s first all-virtual Comic Con it got me thinking, comic books and graphic novels get shrugged off as lightweight in some corners, but there have been some pretty entertaining films based on them over the years. I’m not talking about the superhero and super villain films Marvel and DC churn out, but movies that you might forget were born from comics instead of a more traditional novel or original screenplay. Which ones stand out from the crowd? Here are some of the very best.

The Crow (1994)
This is the film that started the tradition of great comic to film adaptations for me. Alex Proyas directed this action-packed movie based on the comic book by James O’Barr. It tells the story of a rock musician who is brought back from the dead to avenge the murder of himself and his fiancée. Its flashy visuals, exciting martial arts, and standout soundtrack all left their mark on audiences but sadly it was the last film performance for star Brandon Lee who died of a gunshot accident while on set.

From Hell (2001)
Loosely adapted from a comic by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, this film tells the story of Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel Murders. Johnny Depp plays inspector Frederick Abberline who leads the investigation while battling his own demons in the form of an opium addiction. Moore is famous for his dislike of adaptations of his work and this movie is no exception to that vitriol, but it’s a darkly entertaining film that still holds up well.

Road to Perdition (2002)
Paul Newman, Tom Hanks, Jude Law, and Daniel Craig did a comic book movie? Yes, they did. Sam Mendes directed this Chicago gangster flick based on a graphic novel written by Max Allan Collins. Hanks plays against type as a mob enforcer who decides to turn against his mentor and employers after they fail to avenge the murder of his wife by one of their own. The movie is a dark, violent, study on family and what it means to raise a son in a world where loyalty often means death.

A History of Violence (2005)
David Cronenberg delivered this adaptation of a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke and it boasts its share of star power too. Viggo Mortensen plays a small town hero whose dark past comes back to haunt him in the form of baddies played by Ed Harris and William Hurt. Like so much of Cronenberg’s work, this one features some extreme violence and enough twists and turns to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Sin City (2005)
This hyper-violent tale directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez is based on Miller’s graphic novel and uses a similar visual style. It stars a huge cast of well-known actors and showcases a series of hard-boiled vignettes about the cops, prostitutes, gangsters, and murderers who populate the fictional Basin City and their often bloody struggles against one another.

Constantine (2005)
This is a DC Comics film so some might consider it a cheat for this list, but I don’t think of the title character as a superhero. Constantine, played by Keanu Reeves, is a chain-smoking, cynical paranormal detective who has come back from the dead and now has the ability to see and interact with the angel and demon half-breeds who constantly battle on earth for the souls of men. When he meets a police detective who asks for his help investigating her sister’s death, he finds they’re up against no less than the Devil himself.

V for Vendetta (2005)
Written by the Wachowskis of The Matrix fame and based on a comic by the same Alan Moore who wrote From Hell, this film focuses on a young woman’s liberation from the tyrannical forces that control the government and kill all who oppose them. Her liberator, a masked vigilante known only as V, teaches her the true nature of how the government came to power and how to fight back.

30 Days of Night (2007)
One of my favorite horror films ever, this movie is based on a comic series written by Steve Niles. A small town sheriff in Alaska finds his town overwhelmed by a host of vampires who arrive to feast on his townspeople during a month-long polar night. With no outside communications, no hope of daylight, and a blizzard that blocks all roads out of town, it’s up to the sheriff and a few fellow Alaskan denizens to defeat the vampires before there’s no one left alive.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Sure, the title of the Japanese graphic novel this Tom Cruise movie is based on, All You Need Is Kill, is much cooler, but the film is still a good one. Cruise plays a media relations expert in the near future who winds up being demoted to grunt in order to fight and die in an alien invasion. Through a strange twist, he finds that every time he dies, he is reborn to live out the day again. Leveraging this power he is able to become an increasingly effective soldier as he is trained by a battle-hardened Sergeant played by Emily Blunt who has used the same rebirth talent in her efforts to defeat the aliens once and for all.

Atomic Blonde (2017)
2017 was a great year for movies and one of the year’s best is this action film based on Antony Johnston’s graphic novel The Coldest City. Starring Charlize Theron as MI6 spy Lorraine Broughton, her character must travel to Berlin during the Cold War in order to retrieve a list of undercover agents that was stolen from a murdered fellow spy. Set to a fantastic soundtrack of 80s pop, Broughton fights, races, and seduces her way through a series of adversaries and allies as she works to complete her mission while determining exactly who is on which side.


Did I leave one of your favorites off the list? There are plenty more good ones to choose from. Here are some Honorable Mentions:

300, Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Old Guard, Oldboy, Red, Wanted

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Old Guard and Top 10 Action Film Female Bad Asses

Photo Credit: Netflix



I watched the hot new Netflix offering The Old Guard last night. Based on a comic book of the same name, it tells the story of a group of immortal soldiers led by millennia-old Andromache of Scythia (now known as “Andy”) and their battle against an evil pharmaceutical executive who wants to harvest their DNA to cure disease and drive his company’s stock price through the roof of the fancy downtown tower where the film’s action-packed finale takes place. Charlize Theron plays the lead and like just about everything else she does, she nails it as the guilt-ridden bad ass heroine with a tragic backstory. It got me thinking, who are the best female bad asses in action movie history? Here are my picks in a countdown from 10 to 1.

10. Lucy in Lucy (2014)
Scarlett Johansson has starred in several action movies over the course of her career, but this one is my favorite. Writer/Director Luc Besson has a knack for the genre and this story of an unwitting woman who taps into the full power of the human brain via an overdose of a new synthetic drug and uses it against the cartel who created it is a fun ride.

9. Sofia in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019)
Like Johansson, Halle Berry has played tough before, but never has she been more of a bad ass than she was in the third installment of the John Wick franchise. Watching her character Sofia fight side-by-side with Keanu Reeves’ John Wick was a blast even if the movie’s script doesn’t hold up to the original.

8. Ilsa Faust in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
Every one of the films in this long franchise is entertaining, but Rebecca Ferguson brought a welcome shot of female adrenaline to this fifth installment as British agent Ilsa Faust. She holds her own against Tom Cruise’s series lead Ethan Hunt and wound up making other series newcomer Jeremy Renner feel like an afterthought.

7. Miho in Sin City (2005)
There are several murderous women in this stylish hard-boiled thriller from Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, but my favorite is the mute, deadly sword-wielding assassin Miho. Played by Devon Aoki, she does a number on dirty cop Jackie Boy that’s one of the highlights of the movie.

6. Alice in Resident Evil (2002)
Sure, like just about every film based on a video game, the writing in this one is pretty sub-par, but there's no denying Milla Jovovich’s appeal as zombie-killing heroine Alice. From the iconic slinky red dress to the inventive scene in the laser hallway, Alice definitely makes an impression.

5. Jane Smith in Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)
Angelina Jolie could have filled half this list, but I limited myself to just one of her roles and picked Jane Smith. This film is a blast and the chemistry between her and costar Brad Pitt was so palpable no one was surprised when they wound up getting married in real life. That marriage didn’t have quite the same happy ending the film did, but that doesn’t take away from our fun as an audience.

4. Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
One of the earliest cinematic examples of the modern female bad ass, Linda Hamilton nailed the part of Sarah Connor in both the original film and this sequel. Going against Arnold Schwarzenegger in his muscle-bound prime, you’d better bring your action A-game and she did.

3. Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde (2017)
Starring in another film based on a graphic novel, Charlize Theron is both brutal and sexy as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton. Sent to solve a murder in Berlin in the midst of the Cold War, Broughton’s mission includes a series of fantastic fight scenes, a great car chase, and one of the best film soundtracks ever.

2. Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill (2003)
Yes, technically this movie was broken into two chapters, but I’m counting both because there is simply no choosing between Uma Thurmond’s performances as The Bride. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino has written some of film’s best characters ever, but vengeful mama assassin Beatrix Kiddo might take the cake.

1. Ellen Ripley in Aliens (1986)
For me, Sigourney Weaver’s four turns as alien-fighting Ellen Ripley represent the matriarch of the film female action hero. No one before her took what was traditionally a male role and made it something truly female and yet still completely bad ass. She was great in all four of the movies she did in this franchise, but this 1986 sequel was the cream of the crop.


Andromache didn’t quite make my list and I’ll bet plenty of you would argue for some other characters and films I left out, but if you’ve already seen these 10, I highly recommend you add The Old Guard to your Netflix queue.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Character Arc – The Art of the Curve


Photo Credit: Pixabay


There are plenty of ways to screw up a perfectly good story. One of the easiest and most common is to fail to develop or simply rush a character arc. For anyone unfamiliar with or new to writing, one of the most important ingredients to a good story is the character arc. A character starts off one way and over the course of the story, changes. This change provides much of the heart of a tale. Think about Andy Dufresne’s journey from helpless, hopeless, self-absorbed convict to dedicated friend, inspiring inmate leader, and hopeful escape artist in The Shawshank Redemption or naïve but well-meaning Evey in V for Vendetta who grows into a badass revolutionary to help bring down a dictator.

A well-written story takes the time to show the audience how the character evolves. Significant change tends to take time and the audience believes in this change because they see it happen in understandable stages. Michael Corleone doesn’t become The Godfather overnight. He spends decades learning about the violence and manipulation it takes to run the family business before he takes it over from his father.

One of my favorite (least favorite?) examples of a character arc gone wrong is Anakin Skywalker’s journey from innocent droid tinkerer to Sith Lord, Darth Vader. George Lucas is a master at world building but Good God his dialogue lands with a thud. He took three films to show us that arc and I didn’t believe a single minute of it despite going in knowing how it had to turn out thanks to it being a prequel. The events that lead to Anakin’s turn to the dark side are debatably adequate, but the filmmaker, script, and actors just never do them justice.

The latest bad example of character arc that reared its ugly head at me and inspired the writing of this post is most of Season 3 of the Netflix show, Ozark. I loved the first two seasons – intriguing set-up, three dimensional characters, merciless cutting of those character when the story demanded it... great storytelling. Then I watched Season 3 last week. Multiple main characters were suddenly dramatically different with little to no explanation. Those changes were clearly made in order to tell a new chapter of the story instead of the story driving those characters to change. It’s taken me out of the imaginary world the show created despite the same great premise and acting.

Season 3 improved in the last few episodes but I hope Season 4 (yes, Netflix, make a Season 4!) takes more care in how and why the characters continue to evolve. Ozark is one of the best shows on television right now, but even the greatest stories go awry if writers cut corners on character arc.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Best Budget-Friendly Tequilas

Photo Credit: Pixabay


I saw an article recently on a site I won’t name that published a list of the top tequilas on the market. As someone who considers himself something of a tequila aficionado I wasn’t impressed. Half the tequilas on that list aren’t fit for frat-party margaritas much less sipping straight in the comfort of your Corona-19 confined home. So what should you try if you want a nice tequila buzz but don’t have a Congressional stimulus budget to spend? Read on for my picks that can be purchased $60 and under for a 750ml bottle.  

Cazadores Añejo ($37)
For any of you who are perhaps a little newer to the joys of tequila, most brands are available in at least three varieties: Blanco/Silver, Reposado, and Añejo. These designations are based on how long the liquor has aged in the barrel before bottling. Generally, the longer it has aged, the smoother it tastes and añejos have been aged at least one year. Cazadores Añejo is my go-to tequila. It’s not as well-known as some of the others on this list, but it’s smooth and delicious.

Herradura Ultra ($57)
If you check out their website you’ll learn that Herradura has a rich history and a great line of tequilas. You can’t go wrong with any of their products, but this one is my favorite. This bottle is a little pricier than most on my list, but taste it and you’ll know why. A crystal clear añejo rather than the typical honey-gold color, it’s a premium variety without a premium price.

Casamigos Añejo ($50)
Famously cofounded by actor George Clooney then sold for an astounding one billion (with a B) dollars just four years later, this label’s tequila is aged for 14 months before being bottled and its sweet flavor goes down as smooth as any tequila on this list.

Milagro Añejo ($35)
Yes, the bottle is eye-catching, but the contents are something special too. You might suspect this tequila is of lower quality based on the economic price, but it holds its own against many of the more expensive brands.  

Corralejo Añejo ($37)
This is another tequila that comes in a beautiful bottle. I was introduced to it via a Christmas present last year and it kept me happy and warm by the tree on more than one occasion. Give yourself a treat, drink the bottle then save it to decorate your bar.

Dulce Vida Organic Reposado ($30)
Purists may dismiss this tequila as a gimmick based on its organic nature, but I encourage you to give it a try. I favor organic foods as much as possible in order to avoid food sprayed with pesticides or grown with fertilizers or hormones, and this tequila not only follows those practices, it has a light, sweet flavor too.

Don Julio Añejo ($58)
Don Julio tends to cost a bit more than most of the tequilas on this list, but they make a good product. This one sips clean and will warm your belly with its finish.

Patron Añejo ($60)
As the most expensive tequila on my list, Patron has a lot to live up to and it largely delivers. This añejo is as smooth as you’ll find.

Tres Agaves Añejo ($50)
Tres Agaves makes the best margarita mix on the market, but their tequila isn’t too shabby either. Aged for 18 months in bourbon barrels, its taste includes hints of fruit with a spicy finish.

Pueblo Viejo Añejo ($27)
And finally, priced under $30 per bottle at most stores this tequila probably gets dismissed by many, but it shouldn’t. A friend introduced it to me recently and it’s surprisingly good.