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Saturday, 24 April 2010

Character. Actor #1 : Michael Biehn and Naming

The first in a series of posts that connect acting and characters in a literary and creative writing sense. (Note: 'Actor' is used to include actresses too, its just that 'Character. Actor' sounds catchier...and I stress that I'm not a professional actor, I'm just writing from a literary POV)

"What's in a name?" asked Shakespeare, who was an obvious master of naming his characters.  As a writer you have the potential to give your characters power through your choice of name; just take care that there's no potential for confusion. The question should not be,"What the $%@# is that name?".

Here's a personal example; when I was young, I used to have the following discussion with other girls about the actor Michael Biehn (right):

Variation #1
"Did you see 'The Terminator' on TV last night?"
"How do you pronounce that actor's last name?"
"Err, 'Sch-war-zen-neg-gar'?"
"No, not him! I'm talking about the cute guy protecting Sarah Connor."
"Ahh, 'Michael Bi-' 'Bine'? 'Behn?' 'Bin'?"

Variation #2
"Did you see 'Aliens' last night?"
"How do you pronounce the name of-?"
"'Si-Gour- nee-Weaver"
"No, not her! I'm talking about the cute guy playing 'Hicks'. The little girl bit him on the hand?"
"Oh, him again....'Michael B-i-e-h-n?"
"Eeleen, I know how to spell his last name but how do you say it?"

I was genuinely stumped. Movie encyclopedias entries listed him but did not say how his surname is pronounced (this was before the Internet, Google, Wikipedia and Imdb) I waited patiently for interviews and news snippets on programs such as Entertainment This Week (broadcast in Singapore one month late) just to hear his name pronounced by a presenter.
Nothing. Nada. I dubbed him 'Hicks' after his character in "Aliens" just for easy reference. But I felt like I wasn't doing him justice because he was in other major films before and after "Aliens".

One afternoon Karuna Ti and I took matters into our own hands; we sat down and dissected his surname. I decided that the name 'Biehn' could be Germanic , as in 'Bein' whereas she proposed that the 'h' was silent,  towards the Gallic sounding, 'Bien'. To pronounce the 'h' resulted in 'Michael Be-hine', which did not sound respectful at all. We agreed to disagree and use our individual pronunciations. Hence once we settled this issue, we talked about his other films such as 'The Seventh Seal', 'Navy Seals', and how I missed a brief screening of 'K2' at the cineplex.

As writers we all know that the naming of characters is important. "The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names." goes an ancient Chinese saying. Name your characters well for the sake of first impressions. When in doubt, try the names on your beta readers and friends.
A good name does not have to be simplistic, for example an unwieldy monicker did not harm the careers of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sigourney Weaver. My name has six 'e's in it and people always remember it. But beware the nebulous name which can be problematic. It's not that your readers are lazy or stupid, it's just that they want to be certain. Imagine your readers are meeting a new best friend; they want to get the name absolutely right and not offend the person.

Now I know Michael Biehn's surname is actually pronounced 'Been' (both of us were wrong although common sense told us the 'h' is silent) and I was right about the German origin. But it would've been nice to have been (no pun intended) sure in the first place. Just because he's a brilliant, versatile yet underused actor, ranging from the heroic :"Aliens" ,"Navy Seals"to the psychotic ;"The Fan" (1981) and 'The Abyss'.  Here's a website if you can't get enough of Mr. Biehn. And he meets all the eye-candy criteria for this blog.

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Favourite Authors

In no particular order, not an exhaustive list and not excluded to the following;
  1. Ian McEwan
  2. Joseph Conrad
  3. Aldous Huxley
  4. J.G Ballard
  5. Graham Swift
  6. M.R James
  7. Daphne du Maurier
  8. Clive Barker
  9. Evelyn Waugh
  10. Saki
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Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Obscure Horrors

I thought I might save this post for Halloween, but then again, Halloween is a season for carnivalesque safe scares; you pays your money, enter the ghost-train ride and emerge on the other side unscathed. The ride is easily forgotten and the memory is disposable, whereas a great horror story errrrmm...haunts you.

Alison Flood's article article in The Guardian set me thinking about horror/supernatural fiction. Readers cite the usual horror suspects (King, Poe, Shirley Jackson...) but I remember as a reader that my literary scares came from reading short stories in old anthologies borrowed from libraries or unearthed in clearance book sales. I discovered new names and old names; wonderful tales by one-hit wonders and stories by writers that you'd normally would not associate with horror/ supernatural fiction.

It wouldn't be useful to name some of these old anthologies because some are long out of print, but links to more available editions  are included where possible.

1)  "Not Exactly Ghosts"  Andrew Caldecott (Wordsworth Editions 2007)
Sir Andrew Caldecott is better known as a diplomat and ex-governor of Hong Kong and Singapore. His administrative legacy endures (Mediacorp, the home of Singapore Broadcasting, resides on Caldecott Hill) but his literary legacy is criminally underrated. Buy this if you want subtle early 20th-Century ghost stories, where mundane objects like a pump, a pair of trousers and a church organ are haunted .

2)"The Party" "The Partnership" William F. Nolan
What? Horror from one of the writers of "Logan's Run"? I had to struggle to put the 1976 movie out of my head, Nolan writes superb dark psychological tales and "The Party" was as chosen by Newsweek as one of the top ten most effective horror stories. "The Partnership" is an unsettling sample of American Gothic that was adapted for the anthology TV series "Darkroom" in 1980. Now I want a copy of "Logan's Run" because the book is much grittier and deserves better, before Hollywood got its mitts on it for the movie.

3)"Video Nasty" Phillip Pullman (1996). Published in "The Mammoth Book of Modern Ghost Stories" edited by Peter Haining (Mammoth Books 2007)

Yes, dear reader you read the name correctly as him of "Northern Lights" fame . Just like its title, "Video Nasty" is an unmercifully visceral short ghost story that raises more troubling questions than answers. Parallels between 'The Ring' are merely coincidental (it was written 3 years before the Japanese film version hit mainstream Western audiences)

4) The Machine Stops E.M Forster
A dystopian science-fiction story by one of the foremost critics of science-fiction. This is not a horror story but I urge you not to shudder at Forster's vision of future humans reduced to fungoid growths by their slavish dependence on technology.

5) The Lamp Agatha Christie(1933). Published in"The Hound of Death and other stories"  (Harper Collins Ltd)
The Queen of Crime also reigns supreme as a ghost story writer . Poignant and eerie, "The Lamp" has a unique atmosphere that does not disperse, even when you have switched on all the lights.

6) All But Empty Graham Greene
A murder is connected to an afternoon matinee attended by only two people. Invariably, there is a twist ending but *what* a twist it is.

7) Close Behind Him John Wyndham
In his famous novels such as 'The Day of the Triffids' and 'The Midwich Cuckoos', Wyndham created his own genre of 'logical fantasy' and he applies the same precise structuring and prose to this story of murder avenged.

8) The Ball Room China Mieville "Looking For Jake and Other Stories" (Pan, 2006)
Can China Mieville's prose hack it in a real-world setting? It does and you almost wish he wrote more contemporary fiction. You will never dare go near a children's play area after reading this.

9) The Dancing Partner Jerome K. Jerome
The author of the classic comic novel "Three Men In a Boat" displays a rarely-seen warped sense of humour in this tale of a toy dancing-partner that *never* wants to stop dancing.

10) The Signalman Charles Dickens
Incisive social commentary of Victorian England? Check. Effortless lucid prose from a master writer? Check. Eccentric ghosts a la "A Christmas Carol"? Absent. A disturbing ending that ensures sleeping with all the lights on? Present.

Other suggestions/ additions to this list? Comment below thank you

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Monday, 5 April 2010

Filler Killer

Here's a problem that I don't really talk about as a writer, because I've never encountered it before.

What do you do when you can't make the minimal wordcount? When even 2000 words feels like you have to pull material out of every gawdforsaken body orifice? Do I resort to tautology and obfuscation to meet the requirement but shortchange myself and my readers? Should I incorporate Henry Jamesian passages of long description and bore myself into a stupor?

My muse scratches his/her nose and opines that there wasn't much of a story or narrative drive to whatever I was working on in the first place. I'm reminded of Abe Ferrara's infamous film, 'The Driller Killer' - in between brief scenes of the film's anti-hero taking a power tool to the skulls of winos in 1970's New York, Ferrara's film is mostly filler (oil-painting, lesbian shower scenes acted by actresses who look fed up and shots of the noisy punk band rehearsing next door..). Perhaps a gory poster would work....?
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