Recently, I had a total blast with three Nicks and a podcast called Fanthropological, talking speculative fiction and making a lot of VERY silly jokes. And remarks about Margaret Atwood. And talking about how to pronounce “Heinlein”…
I’m not just saying this because I was a part of it, but you should listen to it! 😁
How did you read this far without asking this question?!
Fanthropological is an anthropological (ish) podcast where we bring the fan’s-eye view to you! Each week, we take a look at a different fandom, dig up interesting background, trivia, and history, and try to get to why it is that people are a fan. We also try to highlight good causes related to that fandom, and find interesting things that fans have created to share those to the world. Each episode is about an hour. Ish.
We are the Nickscast! Three products of late-80s / early-90s pop culture who love exploring fandom and everything geek … who also happen to have been best buddies since high school, and all happen to be named Nick. Yes, we are super creative (dare we say, the most creative).
In “Undead Redhead,” heroine Sharon Backovic faces a lot of problems even before she dies, in a freak wedding bouquet toss incident. Her journey forces her to confront even more troubling questions, like, When I was alive, was I really living, or just going through the motions?
For Sharon Backovic, life was never easy. Yeah, I did that to her. They say, pile on the adversity and give your heroine something to overcome.
When I got the idea for UDRH, it was in part because all the killing and blood and gore in zombie TV shows and movies. Not that I have anything against a good slasher flick, but I really got to thinking: Are zombies just a convenient way for authors to kill a lot of people without any ethical or philosophical consequences? After all, you have to kill zombies, or they’re going to kill you. They can’t be saved from their own natures. They can only be stopped.
That’s an interesting story as far as it goes, but it wasn’t one I felt like telling. Instead, the zombie craze got me thinking about other, older traditions of zombie-making, like the actual origin of the word in voodoo practice. Here, zombis (without the “e”) are created by priests practicing the Petro tradition.
Vodou and the Zombi
In order to understand what this means, you have to understand the basics of the voodoo religion, which has been portrayed on screen and in books so many times but seldom with any grounding in truth. I’m just a neophyte when it comes to understanding the long and rich traditions, but I can give you a grounding in the basics.
First of all, I’m going to use the spelling commonly associated with Haitian practice, vodou, partly to distinguish it from Louisiana voodoo, with which more people are familiar, but about which there is more misconception than knowledge!
Vodou is a 400+ year old religious practice with roots in Africa and the Caribbean, with many geographical variations. Worship is directed not toward what is considered an all-powerful and unknowable God, but instead toward the spirits who serve Him. The pantheon of vodouspirits, or loa, is complex and vast, and each of the spirits belong to a house or family that immediately tells you something about their nature.
Possession By the Loa
Priests of vodou are called hongan (males) or mambo (females) and part of the rituals involve inviting the spirits into their bodies to use as they wish. Vodou rituals can be strange or exhilarating for both the participants and observers, as the priest dances or otherwise allows one of the lords of the pantheon to assume their consciousness.
Officiants of vodou rituals are often given great respect in places like Haiti, and can hold political as well as spiritual power. The affiliation of a priest with a particular vodou family can tell you something about their beliefs and philosophy. There are darker as well as lighter forms of vodou, and the Petro tradition contains some of the darkest.
One of these is the spell to make a zombi, out of the corpse of a dead person. This is where our concept of the “zombie” comes from: the misuse of a dead individual by someone practicing Petro magic to create an unwilling servant with no will of its own. Understandably, most people frown on this!
That’s about all the spoilers I’m going to give you—for the rest of the story and how it relates to Sharon’s “afterlife,” you’ll just have to read the book!
I think that writing fanfic fiction has always been a natural way for a writer to begin, even before the term itself existed. Imitation is the easiest way to start to do anything: here’s how to throw a ball, trace this letter then try it yourself.
The surge in popularity of fan fiction seems as much a tribute to the easy of sharing stories as it is proof that we love to put ourselves, or at least our own imaginations, into the worlds others create to entertain us (or, you know, themselves!)
So I can’t stigmatize the urge or the action of writing fan fiction as something that ISN’T writing, as the more snobbish might. Writers don’t start off performing like finely-tuned racing cars, or running like prized thoroughbreds in a prestigious race. We start off small (with that six page “novel” we wrote in elementary school) and move on up from there.
Fanfic: What’s your goal?
There are however different kinds of writing and different goals for it, and there are certainly different levels of competence. You have to “learn the craft,” as they say, to take your work beyond fanfic if you want it to reach a consumer market as well as the folks who are going to love what you do because you’re giving them what they want: a new or expanded way into stories and characters they already love.
I know that I forgive a lot of spelling and grammar errors in fanfic that I wouldn’t in a published mass market paperback, or even in a manuscript that crosses my own desk. If you want to reach an audience that will see you as a creator and craftsperson, you need to do two things—and yes, they will both take a long time! You need to learn how to write technically, and you need to learn to tell your own stories.
Spec Script 101
If you don’t know what a spec script is, you might want to read up! If you’ve ever dreamed of having a show you created on television, one of the ways to get there is to write a spec, which is basically a piece of fan fiction that can take you to the next level with your writing career. A spec is an episode of a current television show (live or animated) that YOU write. Here’s a place where you can bring all your fanfic chops to bear. I mean, you probably already know what you want to see happen to your favourite characters! And here’s a way you can do it.
Now, something else you should know going in is that you rarely send a spec script to the show you wrote it about. That’s mostly a legal thing, because the last thing a show wants to do is air a story close to yours and have you sue them! But you can send a “Supernatural” spec script to “Grimm,” or a “CSI” script to “NCIS.”
From there, you might end up getting hired to write a script for the show you submitted to, from which you might move into the writers’ room where new ideas are honed, and eventually on to create a show yourself.
Fan fiction can take you places, if you learn the craft, and watch out for opportunities. And yes, spelling DEFINITELY counts!
For anyone who loves cinema, sound is just as important as the visual image to storytelling. In the debut episode of the JFRRS! Podcast, Jen reads an essay on the use of music and sound effects in Akira Kurosawa’s classic films including Rashomon (left) and Seven Samurai.
Transcript follows: some differences between actual recorded content and script is not just possible but likely!
JFFRS Ep 1.1
“Serenity is the privilege of hearing a sound evoked by the gentle jump of a sparrow accompanied by the sound of a falling leaf.”
Hello and welcome to the first episode of the JFRRS podcast, or, if you’re in a Not Safe For Work be damned environment, Jen Frankel Reads Random Shit. I am Jen Frankel, a writer of said random shit, but at the beginning of this episode, you heard me read a quote from Jaroslav Havelka. I hope to share with you some words of wisdom on life and writing in particular over the course of this podcast, from some of my favourite authors and thinkers on the subject.
You’ve probably heard it said that writing is a lonely profession. There’s something to that, but it’s also true that writers often stand just outside of the world, either on purpose or because they just can’t help it. I was once at an exhibition of new pointillist paintings – you know, the ones made up of tiny dots of colour – and the gallery was in a house so tiny that you literally could not stand far enough back for the pictures to make sense. Being a writer is like that, you need to step back to see the whole picture sometimes.
And taking THAT lesson from my experience also makes me focus less on the way I put my foot right in my mouth by saying, “You just can’t get far enough away from these paintings.” Just when the artist was standing right next to me.
Context. Perspective. Yes, they can make you take a few steps back to get a sense of the entirety of the thing you’re considering. Or you can move in close and see details that were invisible before, a single hair, or a tiny bug, an amoeba, an atom, a quark.
On this episode, I’m going to read you an essay about the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa which delves a little into how both the grandiose and the minute can amaze in the hands of a master. If art is about communication, Kurosawa spoke in a way that made me excited to listen. This is The Pealing of a Bell on a Silent Night.
“Hearkening to the pealing of a bell on a silent night, one may be awakened from a dream of dreams. Gazing at the reflection of the moon on a transparent pool, one may visualize a spiritual body in one’s physical body.” A Chinese Garden of Serenity by Hung Tzu-Ch’eng
The films of Akira Kurosawa are visually stunning. The scope and depth to capture the imaginations of Western, as well as Eastern, audiences. Every moment in a Kurosawa film provides the viewer with breathtaking precision of choreography. Still, every character and motive rings true, as in a well-executed play. Kurosawa understands every device of modern cinema. He utilizes every method of storytelling to a level of excellence rarely seen in any other productions.
Especially outstanding is Kurosawa’s use of sound, both to set mood and underscore action. It is only fitting in a movie of the epic grandeur of The Seven Samurai that the music and sound effects should take the story above conventional adventure, to turn it into legend.
One of Kurosawa’s talents is to use music vividly enough to almost preclude the need for the images themselves. The Seven Samurai opens with heavy, ponderous drumbeats, changing to the overwhelming percussion of hoofbeats, the ominous approach of the bandits. Even without visuals, this scene could be accurately described by someone listening to the soundtrack.
Music in The Seven Samurai never resembles the pervasive background hum of modern Hollywood soundtrack. It is used more as an effect, in the same manner as other sound is added. It is obvious Kurosawa gave as much thought to the inclusion of music as to the images. For example, when the farmers arrive in town to look for their samurai, the music is light, almost comical. It’s setting an easy tone to the first days’ search, and almost giving the audience permission to see the humor in the farmers’ misfortunes.
Later, despair settles on them as they realize they can no longer afford to eat if they expect to pay samurai, if samurai they can even find. A sitar plucks single notes, lending a mood of loneliness and depression.
Another method used by Kurosawa to use sound to its fullest is the idea of personal, or symbolic, themes. Several characters have music or sounds that alert us to their presence. Indeed, the whole well-being of the farmers’ village seems hinged on the sounds of a single bird chirping. As long as the bird chirps, everything is safe. When the bird is silent, there is a reason.
The old grandfather has a very specific theme always associated with him that becomes vital in the latter portion of the film; that of the rhythmic thump of the waterwheel. Whenever the farmers, or later, the samurai, visit the grandfather, Kurosawa has laid over a very heavy track of thumps, of the millwheel in operation. Near the end of the film, when the bandits close in on the village. It is obvious some number of houses will need to be sacrificed because they cannot be adequately defended. It is the repeated thump as the camera focuses on the mill from the distance that reminds us that the grandfather is in danger.
Another way Kurosawa uses sound to manipulate and intensify the involvement of the audience is probably the most obvious, as it is the most striking. This is the simple use of foley and ambience sound that is basic to filmmaking. Kurosawa, however, is not content to lay sound to match every sound that might have been present at the time each scene was shot. One sound is usually picked out as having more importance than the others. It is only this sound that the audience hears.
One example of this is the use of the noise of the falling rain. Repeatedly, this becomes a symbol of despair, especially when no other sound is audible. It is hard to forget the scene in which the farmers realize their crop has ripened. The drumming rain counterpoints the earlier hoofbeats of the bandits’ horses.
In Rashomon, another very powerful example exists. During the scene in which the woman conjures the spirit of her dead husband, the visual suggests a strong wind, whipping her hair and garments. But the soundtrack contains only drumbeats and the spirit’s voice, upsetting the reality of the scene. It allows that mystical things may happen, even in a film otherwise based outside the metaphysical.
Kurosawa has a mastery of the film language that creates the magic of his movies. A storytelling ability that is the culmination of his control of sound, plot, and image. All the planning however does not make a film like the Seven Samurai look contrived, just very well made. The attention paid to sound and music is certainly one of the most valuable lessons to be taken by any student of his work.
I actually did write that essay for a class when I attended art school. In coming weeks, I’ll be sharing with you some purpose-written work like pieces of reporting or other journalistic explorations. Some short fiction, poetry, excerpts from longer work, and lyrics. On subjects from time travel to the Titanic and in a multitude of genres. I am, as you might see, as much a random writer as a reader of random things.
I used to say that the reason I write is that short of becoming a game show contestant. There’s really no other profession that allows me to use all the useful and useless random knowledge that I accumulate. I’m a fact sponge. I love learning things, and when I do, those things rattle around with other things and sometimes make new things.
I’ve also been known to say that, for a creative person, it’s when the voices in your head STOP that you know you’re sick.
As I continue this podcast, I hope to share some insights into the writerly mind. Some extreme close-ups as well as some vistas. Because seeing a person is as difficult as seeing a pointillist painting. You get different impressions depending on how far away you are and how closely you look. I’d like to let you get to know me through my words. And I’d like to get to know you too through yours.
That’s all for this first episode of Jen Frankel Reads Random Shit. I hope you’ll explore the films of Akira Kurosawa, like The Seven Samurai and Rashamon, and maybe look up Jaroslav Havelka as well.
See you next time, when yes, I shall have more random shit for your listening pleasure.
Taste is a tricky thing. We mistake our taste for an arbiter of quality, calling something terrible or brilliant because we like it, without any resort to an objective standard.
One of the most humbling realizations as an editor or reviewer of other people’s work can be that, while you hate a particular piece of writing, there’s nothing at all wrong with it. It can be good even if you don’t like it. Just as every writer has a style and a viewpoint, so does every reader, and you probably will never please them all.
When we’re young, a lot of us want to change the world. We’re going to write the game-changing novel, or discover the missing piece that will lead to universal happiness.
But what exactly is the change we seek? What do we want to cure in humanity, or gift to it that would make everything better? Does everyone even want the same thing? And how much time have we spent learning what is wrong so that we’re even trying to fix the right thing?
As we get older, we often become less idealistic, believing that it’s either unrealistic or arrogant to think that we can make a difference. Me, I became overwhelmed. I’ve tried hard to look into the lives of every kind of person I come across, to understand the deep needs that aren’t being met, to discover what they have too little, or too much of, and how an alteration of their circumstances might actually affect them. After all, lots of people want to win the lottery, but those who have aren’t necessarily any happier.
For 2018, I want to set the bar very high for myself. I want to search for that thing that everyone can understand and relate to, instead of writing for the lowest common denominator, seeking instead the highest.
So for 2018, here is my pledge: to look more clearly, to ask more questions, and to try to discover what, if anything, I can really do to make the world a better place. If it’s through my art, all the better. If not, I hope I will have the humility to help in another way.
This poem is about learning that even personal preference can be a luxury others can’t afford to exert.
Would be more acceptable if it was only my own
If I was stating my disgust with brown bedding
Or floppy hats
My love of strappy sandals
And a sunset with boats sailing through
But my taste isn’t only my taste
It wants to look at the bigger picture
Those tall yachts are a lifestyle I can’t fathom
So to speak
Not when I compare it to the place I stand
And the disadvantaged folk sharing this beach with me
What place do strappy sandals have in a world
Where having shoes at all can make the difference between going to school or not
And having good work boots can mean the difference between having a job
And going hungry
Every year you don’t have those boots
Adding to the likelihood you’ll fall further away from any job
From any chance of a livelihood
How can I justify a preference for this bottled water over that
When water runs free and clean from my taps?
My taste likes to remind me of that good fortune
When I consider water from a store
My taste never stops reminding me that it is a luxury others don’t possess
I’ll exercise it with restraint
Until everyone can have their own.
Yes, this is a seriously good time to write about what I’m going to do when I’m famous. A) I’m not, and B) since I haven’t had any experience being famous, I can speak with the authority of the entirely ignorant.
It’s also a great time to get started because no one is going to mistake me for, well, anyone.
Fame is a tricky beast, and always has been. People hated Cleopatra millennia before Hillary, and that was way before Fox News. The contemporary accounts of King Henry VIII are full of praise for his height and good looks.
I have always been perplexed by hero worship, or even hero envy, but then I’m lucky to have always known my path in life, and to have concerns other than the public side of what I do.
The work, in other words, is the point, not who loves me or knows who I am.
I want you to feel like you could be my peer, not my peon. It would be extremely flattering to know you admire me and connect with my work, but I want you to ask yourself why.
Art is a conversation we have often at extreme arms’ length, with art as the medium of that conversation. Marshall McLuhan’s concept of the medium as the message has warped even further: now the media is two-way voice and video chat. Media is so ubiquitous that we treat the plural of the noun as if it’s the smallest unit we’d deign to consume.
My rule about stories is that I only want to read about someone who’s more interesting than I am. That way, I’m always learning, always growing, and I strive to set that bar pretty high in my own life. That’s what you deserve too, what I hope our conversation spurs you on to.
I quip that I only want to meet famous people when they want to meet me, but that’s really the truth. When you read my work, we’re having the best conversation I can offer you: crafted, honed, and cleverly printed and bound in book manuscript form, to paraphrase Blackadder.
If something I write sparks you, let that spark move you to something more profound than fandom. Let it move you to respond by starting a conversation with someone else, with growing and learning to do and be what you admire instead of letting me speak for you. I’m sure you have tons to say and talking to yourself is, I’m sure, as lonely for you as it is for me.
I wish you joy of identity, of striving for excellence, of honing your own conversational skills to bridge the gap between yourself and others. I wish you more than the surface of fame, the parties and the money. I wish you something real, something lasting, and something infinitely more valuable: communication.
As a side note: there was no “Jen Frankel Reads Random S#it!” podcast this month. Apologies! But if you’ve read this month’s newsletter, you have more than a good idea why. If not, sign up!! –> 😉
It isn’t that Hollywood is out to make bland, bad films. It’s just apparently the industry has forgotten entirely what used to make them good. Or, at the very least, is just supremely good at making them mediocre…
How to Write a Successful Hollywood Film in 11 Steps
If you know my writing (and, well, my attitude — I’m not exactly quiet when it comes to the subject), you’ll know that colouring within the lines is not exactly my thing. I take my craft pretty damn seriously, and that’s why I try to up the ante with each major piece of writing I attempt: hone the style, find unique ways of looking at a fictional world and portraying the characters who inhabit it, and try oh so hard to keep you guessing about what’s going to happen.
Let’s face it. An astonishing self-serving message from Amazon claims that books compete directly against movies, video games and other forms of entertainment, but I know that’s just not true. People who read continue to read. But far more people will only ever experience my work if it gets translate to the screen.
That makes scriptwriting a kind of mystical holy passion many dream about, novelists or no. But if you wanna get your film produced, here’s what you gotta do.
11 Steps to Writing a Hollywood Film
Think up an idea that can be successfully communicated in ten seconds or less. An idea, mind, not a story, and if you include a character or two, make sure you refer to him (not him/her) as “the hero,” not by name or personality type. This is the famous so-called “elevator pitch,” so called because “something a drunk producer you met for ten seconds at a party will remember tomorrow morning in the bathroom” is way too long to be hip.
Don’t go out of your way to learn how to write. Especially, don’t read yourself. If you want to learn how to write scripts, just think of what you’ve seen in the past few years. If you remember them at all, those films must have been AWESOME. If you must read classic scripts, don’t go back further than Quentin Tarantino. I mean, he references everything that matters from before anyhow.
Your hero must be an everyman. He must combine the best of the schlubbish laziness we’ve come to accept as the pinnacle of cool with killer abs for the ladies. After all, if there’s killer abs, they’re not going to make a fuss about a little bit of female T&A on display.
And you’re gonna need some T&A. If it’s an action flick, a preternaturally skinny kick-boxing hottie with an utterly humorless attitude who dislikes the hero, so you know she’s gonna fall for him (schlub magic at work! or maybe it’s the abs…) If it’s any other kind of film, you’ll need a preternaturally skinny Pilates-outted chick with an utterly humorless attitude, who gives you the impression she’s been preparing every moment of her life to be a beautiful Hollywood actress, so, you know, no time to develop a personality or outside interests. She should also be able to authoritatively deliver her lines entirely as questions to the hero: “What do you mean?” “Where are you going?” “I don’t understand about the main elements of the plot to this point at all so perhaps you could give a synopsis for me and all the intellectually slowish audience members?”
Fight scenes. This is what your movie turns on. Yes, there’s the action scenes to worry about too, but the big climax is going to come down to a fight. Mano a mano. Your schlub against the up-to-this-point magically so much stronger villain. Spend most of your creative time trying to think up something you haven’t seen in a film before. Doesn’t have to be good, just different enough to be memorable.
Action scenes. Not to be confused with fight scenes. These are where your CGI guys will really earn their money. You can include your characters, but seriously, it’s not the climactic fight scene where you actually DO need to have people around, so concentrate on minor stuff they can shoot greenscreen and pimp out big time time in post.
Issues. Gotta have issues. I mean, no matter what else is going on in the plot, your main schlub has to have what poncey hipster screenwriting gurus refer to as “arc,” something that any good producer will strip to a bare minimum. Something about the schlub’s inability to connect with his daddy is awesome. Dead wives and kids are great too. Just stick to one, and make sure it affects everything he does — until it suddenly gets solved right after the big fight scene. That’s called “catharsis.” Or “denouement.” Whatever. You need it. Just don’t labour too long to come up with something spicy. It might not be universal enough!
Add some subsidiary characters. Don’t worry too much about them, and remember you can always cheat using my famous “Handbook of Minor Characters.” Just make sure you use the current edition, or you’ll end up with some retro “funny black guy who can trip over his own toes for comic relief” character that’ll get the political set all riled up. For your reference, here are some must-haves:
The big-ass strong, dumb guy.
The wiry hyper-kinetic out-of-control guy.
The know-it-all techie guy who sucks with women
The token girl. Don’t agonize over this one: if you already have a T&A girl in the script, no one will notice if you leave the second chick out! It’s like having an Asian or a black guy in your script. As long as you have one, you’ve done the due diligence.
Tart up the villain with something special, either a power or secret pain we haven’t seen before. Maybe something about his daddy! You can throw in some low-level flunkies, and maybe one more developed one. The more developed one, traditionally, is the one who betrays his boss by having an attack of conscience. Don’t fret any other characters; they’re just there to bring coffee, drive cars, and die without any emotional burden to the audience.
One liners. Screw dialogue! Just watch a few days’ worth of Louis C.K. and you’ll be in the right mood to hammer out some sardonic, sassy catchphrases that moviegoers can memorize and repeat ad naseum to each other.
The story. I know, you figured the story really tells itself! Well, no, honey. You have to actually think up a story to go along with all the awesome characters and action sequences. Think back to the elevator pitch, and see if you can tease something out. Look up “MacGuffin” online so you don’t stress TOO much about this part. What they’re fighting for doesn’t really matter that much. The fact that they’re fighting is the point.
And there you go! That’s all there is to it. Fame and fortune awaits. . .